Pitzer College announced Saturday that it would sell off all holdings in its endowment that are in fossil fuel comapnies. A number of small colleges have announced such moves, but Pitzer officials believe that their institution is the largest by far (in endowment size) to make such a move.
The endowment at Pitzer is worth $125 million -- hardly gargantuan, but large enough that it puts Pitzer in the category of colleges where leaders have until now ruled out divestment, despite considerable student activism urging changes in endowment policies. Harvard University President Drew Faust, for example, responded to a divestment push last year by saying that to do so would be financially risky and would not necessarily help the environment.
In an interview Saturday, Pitzer President Laura Skandera Trombley said that she and members of her board's investment committee had done extensive studies, and determined that selling off stocks in fossil fuel companies would not hurt the college financially. "It is possible to divest without a long-term adverse effect," she said.
Pitzer has a strong proponent of that view on its board: the actor/environmentalist Robert Redford, who attended Saturday's event to endorse the college's efforts.
Currently, about $5.4 million in investments in the Pitzer endowment are in fossil fuel companies that will need to be sold off. Trombley said that $4.4 million would be sold by December 31, and that the remaining $1 million would be gone shortly after.
Trombley said she saw divestment as a natural move for Pitzer. "We are an institution that is socially progressive and we have been since our founding," she said. "And we have also been one that is dedicated to sustainability" in the curriculum. She said divestment from fossil fuel companies was "a logical next step."
Previously, the only time Pitzer has adopted a divestment policy was with regard to companies in South Africa (in the apartheid era).
One concern college presidents have expressed about divestment policies is that there are many causes that have activists pushing for divestment -- and that staying away from political investment choices is one way to avoid divisive campus debates, and to keep focused on maximizing endowment value. Right now, for example, there is also a move on many campuses (thus far unsuccessful in the U.S.) to urge colleges to sell investments in companies that do business in or with Israel.
Trombley said that there are no plans to rule out other kinds of investments. "We're looking at this in terms of the values of Pitzer and environmental sustainability is one of those," she said. "I understand that there are other voices calling for other things, but this is what we are doing."
Officials from lobbying groups for the natural gas and coal industries did not respond to email requests for comment.I hope to update -sj