Divestment at Tufts, in the nation, and in Trump’s America

With the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service sitting on the top of the hill and Tufts universalist founding, Tufts has a history of advertising civic engagement as a core value. Part of Tufts mission statement call for the university to “distinguish themselves as active citizens of the world.”

When it comes to the school’s stance of fossil fuel divestment, Tufts Climate Action has been disappointed by what Shana Gallagher, a spokesperson for TCA and a member since her freshman year, considers a failure on Tufts to align their values and their commitment to its students with their investments.

TCA’s fight for fossil fuel divestment is only part of Tufts’ history of divestment and the nation fight for fossil fuel divestment. And with the recent development of Donald Trump’s presidential election, the fight against fossil fuels becomes more pertinent and complicated, according to Gallagher, as the fight to preserve our world’s resources reflects a battle within our democracy.

What is fossil fuel divestment?

Divestment is the act of getting rid of or reducing stocks, bonds, or investment funds for financial, political, ethical, or moral objectives — the opposite of investment. All sorts of organizations including universities, religious organizations, pension funds, and government organizations put millions or billions of dollars in investments to help generate income for them.

The idea behind fossil fuel divestment, according to senior Shana Gallagher, who’s been involved with Tufts Climate Action since her freshman year, is that if it is wrong to hurt the environment, then it is also wrong to profit from companies that contribute to the climate crisis. The fossil fuel divestment movement brings light to the moral and political implications of the fossil fuel industry and points to this industry’s destructive influence on our planet, our economy, and our government.

Divestment of fossil fuels from the Tufts endowment would be a symbolic act, aligning actions with Tufts values. According to Gallagher, the Tufts Climate Action Committee’s  “theory of change is that it is immoral for the university to profit from the fossil fuel industry, considering that the fossil fuel industry is causing climate change by blocking any meaningful legislation, politically corrupting our democracy.”  Tufts has already taken some action to reduce its carbon footprint, but calling for divestment pushes Tufts to dissociate from its current dependency on an unsustainable fossil fuel economy. According to Gallagher,

We invest in you, therefore, you should invest in us and our futures, and not be invested in an industry that profits from destroying the planet.

Divesting would be a proclamation of Tufts’ commitment to move towards a sustainable and eco-friendly economy and world.

Fossil fuel divestment across the country

Students at many universities across the country have led successful fossil fuel divestment movements. Universities and colleges that have divested from fossil fuels range from small liberal arts colleges to large state schools, with varying endowment sizes.

Additionally, not all colleges and universities have divested in the same way. While some colleges have fully divested from all harmful means of energy production, some have divested partially, some divested from coal only, some from fossil fuels only, and some from coal and tar sands only.


How Tufts could divest

One important thing to point on when talking about divestment is the two different ways that the endowment is invested. The first and most common type is through commingled funds. This means the money is invested in a fund “consisting of assets from several accounts that are blended together.” The other way in which the endowment is invested is through direct holdings. Direct holdings are where the stock owner owns a stock directly in the company.

In terms of divestment, commingled funds are very unappealing to divest from because they may only contain one fossil fuel stock out of hundreds of stocks. Another reason why commingled funds are hard to divest from is because the idea of having fossil fuel free indexes is a relatively new idea, with the first one being created in April 2013 by Stuart Braman, adjunct associate research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and former Managing Director at Standard & Poor’s., according to the Fossil Fuel Index website. The reason why universities are reluctant to invest in new fossil fuel free indexes is because they are new and do not have the long and proven track record that universities prefer their funds to have.

As of fiscal year 2015, Tufts had an endowment of $1.593 billion and of that, 3.7% was in direct holdings while the remaining 96.3% was in commingled funds, according to Gallagher. $5 million of the direct holdings were invested in fossil fuel companies while $70 million of the commingled funds are invested in fossil fuel companies.  

One tricky part with getting the above figures was the lack of transparency with regards to Tufts endowment. While some of the numbers are from January 2016, other figures come from as long ago as 2014. One of the reasons why there is a lack of transparency with the Tufts endowment — and most, if not all, endowments for that matter — is because colleges are trying to outcompete each other in getting the largest annual growth.

While the Tufts Board of Trustees may have handed two “no’s” to Tufts Climate Action with regards to divestment in the past five years, Tufts has actually divested in the past. According to a December 2015 document drafted by a student-faculty divestment working group, the first case of divestment was in 1989 during the apartheid when Tufts divested from all companies doing business in South Africa. This only happened after two previous votes, one in 1986 and another in 1987 failed. Concerning Tufts decision to divest, William Meserve, who headed the Board of Trustees’ finance committee said ”This is a symbolic act in many ways,”  and ”It nevertheless is an important statement about what we believe about equality and civil rights.” At the time, Tufts had roughly $8 million of its $110 million endowment invested in countries doing business in South Africa or 7.3% of its endowment.

According to this 1994 Sunday Telegraph article, the second time that Tufts divested was in 1994 when the Board of Trustees voted to divest from the $2 million of bonds it held in Hydro-Québec. At the time that was 1% of Tufts’ total endowment. Tufts divested because of a “hydroelectric dam project in the James Bay region of northern Canada” that would have displaced the Cree Indians and flooded their hunting grounds. In a statement, university officials said that “the trustees recognized that promoting increased awareness of environmental issues and educating students and others about their responsibility for preserving or improving the environment is a core value of the university.” The university also said  “Although university investments are normally guided by financial considerations, “it is the scale of the proposed Hydro-Quebec project and its potentially negative and irreversible impact on the environment and the indigenous people living in the region that makes this situation unique.

The Rise of Tufts Climate Action

Tufts Climate Action started the divestment campaign in September of 2012, pushing for Tufts’ divestment from fossil fuels. However, regardless of various efforts made through the administrative channel to keep the conversation going, the campaign was met with objections and a lack of sincere consideration from the administration, according to Gallagher.

After the administration issued their first ‘no’ and we tried to re-engage with them about how we can still be a part of sustainability measures, they really sort of blocked us off. I think the reality of the situation is that they weren’t doing anything.

At the same time, Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network (DSN), a network of colleges and universities, mostly in the New England area, according to Gallagher, was having a series of campaigns in different colleges to escalate their call for divestment from fossil fuels. As a member of DSN, TCA had its sit-in towards the end of the DSN’s series of campaigns. The members of TCA sat in President Monaco’s office, urging Tufts to engage in a conversation about divestment. The sit-in lasted for three days, symbolizing three years of TCA’s campaign. Gallagher explained how the sit-in was a powerful statement that encouraged substantial progress in conversations with administration and got the words out about divestment to the larger community through strong media coverage of the event.

However, members of TCA who took part in the sit-in received probation: Those who had left earlier from Ballou Hall received Probation I while those who stayed later received Probation II, leaving those with Probation II in bad standing and with limitations on activities regarding varsity sports and other organizations on campus, according to a September 18, 2015 Tufts Daily  article written about the disciplinary action. Two of the TCA members, one of whom was Shana, who received probation II appealed the probation and won. According to Shana, their attempt to appeal was to educate the community about the importance of activism and question the way the administration responded to the campaign. “They are both profiting off this culture and also punishing students who are involved with it, because it seems like a false pretense to tell these impassioned, driven students, ‘Hey, come to Tufts if you really want to make an impact, but if you do get involved in that, we’re going to punish you pretty severely.’”

Divestment in Trump’s America

After a second round of negotiations and discussion with Monaco on October 23, TCA was met with no concrete promises from the administration. While the discussion was focused on ways the university could address climate change other than divestment….

TCA left the discussion with plans to “lay low” for the rest of the semester and focus on community engagement in the coming spring semester. However, after election night, TCA found more purpose and urgency to address the issues of climate change and divestment in the impending Trump presidency.

A Trump presidency has the potential to reverse progress made towards sustainability, and Trump has already taken damaging action. Trump preaches a message of wealth and business more so than a message of environmentalism and sustainability. He famously tweeted his views of global warming on twitter, calling it a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” His message of supporting the US fossil fuel industry continues with his rally against “the war on coal and the war on miners.” His recent decision to appoint Scott Pruitt, ally of the fossil fuel industry, according to a December 8th Washington Post article, is one that will bring Trump’s threats to overhaul the EPA’s policies into reality.

“[We want to] make people understand the connections between our government not working for us, why someone like Trump who stands for so many horrible damaging things got this power and how that’s connected to climate change, and he is a symptom of our broken democracy in the same way that climate change is,” Gallagher said.

However, part of the reason why people would vote for “someone like Trump” is because he reaches out to a population in the US that gets overlooked. According to a November 9th Chicago Tribune article, Trump’s rally for US economy and fossil fuels industries encourages the strong support he has among the working-class. An impoverished population neglected by the Democratic party, the Rust Belt helped Trump’s victory on election night thanks to his promise to create more jobs for those working in the fossil fuel industrytrump


Parallel to the miners who are trying to find work in the fossil fuel industry are other disenfranchised communities that are also feeling the effects of climate change in their everyday life. The impoverished and largely communities of color that are affected by water pollution in places like Flint, MI. Additionally, the #NoDAPL fight among Indigenous Peoples serves to protect their rights to land and resources. This “broken democracy” that Gallagher refers to is organized by different people of power taking advantage of disenfranchised communities of poor people, miners, people of color, Indigenous people, and others and essentially pitting them against one another.

So what can a university and its students do within their position of power, influence, and privilege? According to Gallagher: Lead the conversation.

“We are beacons of truth and high learning, and we shape social dialogue in many ways and if it’s not coming from the government, it needs to come from up and basically be a bottom-up conversation and change mechanism.”

research, writing, and infographics by Vera Guttenberger, Nina Joung, Adam Meyer, & Han Nguyen

Nina Joung
Project Lead (former Co-Editor In Chief)
Nina Joung is a senior majoring in American Studies. She can be reached at nina.joung@tufts.edu.

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