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Transparency, if not Divestment

By Tim Wolcott

The power needs to shift.   It didn’t usually take me so long to decide to financially support my university.  But this year, I did not contribute until recently.  This was after receiving numerous postal, email and telephone requests from Binghamton University to support their mission.  It took a particular letter to help fund a program in Environmental Law as a memorial tribute to Dr. Herman Robinson to get me to write my check.

For the past decade I have annually contributed a modest amount to Binghamton University.  At various times it was intended for the General Fund or Geology Department or Graduate School of Education.  I am proud to have earned two degrees from B.U. – a B.A. in Geology 1974, and a M.A.T. in Earth Science 1990.  Binghamton University continues to earn both my respect and my financial support.

My concern is that as a trained environmental scientist, Science educator and grandfather, I shouldn’t and can’t ignore the effect that combustion of fossil fuels (around 5% of Binghamton University Foundation’s investments are in fossil fuel companies) has on our planet’s sustainability.  There is near universal scientific consensus that atmospheric CO2 levels above 350 ppm create ecosystem instability and increased human health risks.  Atmospheric CO2 ranged around 280 ppm before the industrial age.  Today, it is higher than 390 ppm and rising.  People all over the world (and locally, due to the two, 100+ year floods in 2006 and 2011) are abandoning ruined homes and lands made uninhabitable by weather disasters. Arctic sea ice and glaciers are melting at alarming rates while the sea becomes acidified (thereby dissolving coral reefs). Furthermore, time lags in the replacement of fossil fuel use by clean energy use has the world on pace for 6 degrees Celsius temperature rise by the end of this century.  That rate of heating, recorded 250 million years ago, extinguished 90% of the life on earth.  We will only accelerate the pace, if we continue to expand the consumption of fossil fuels through mountain top removal for coal, biome destruction to remove tar sand’s oil or drilling ever deeper into ocean waters for oil and gas.

I hoped my personal visits to Binghamton University, my letter to the Chair of the BU Foundation Investment Committee and my emails to BU Foundation’s liaison officer would facilitate a dialogue regarding the investment decisions made by the Foundation.  No real discussion is presumed nor allowed under the current way BU Foundation manages investments. The investment committee allows no visitors to their meetings.  The times of the meetings are kept secret to most.   Donors are appreciated, but, seemingly, not respected.

The committee management contends that it knows best how to invest the monies.  Despite given data that “divesting from fossil fuel companies is unlikely to harm endowments” (Lee Gardiner in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 2013), Binghamton University Foundation will not discuss “screening” their investment choices.  Their primary responsibility is to “maximize returns, not be socially responsive”, is the response I got to repeated requests to consider other options.

I, along with other Binghamton University alumni and current students, am suggesting doable, sustainable alternatives to the opaque and short-sighted nature of the Foundation’s investment decision-making process.  Particularly during this time of economic crisis, where society is requiring increased accountability of students and teachers, society needs to require more accountability from the financial experts that invest for us in the future of higher education.

We are asking the committee to consider the following:

  1. Freeze new fossil fuel investments immediately
  2. Fully divest from fossil fuel investments within five years
  3. Transition from current fossil fuel investment to investment in local businesses, especially ones dedicated to renewable energy production

Moreover, we want to see a more “open meeting” approach on the part of the investment committee of the Binghamton Foundation.  The investment decisions could further be improved if a “prudent person” principle (patterned after Santa Clara University’s) is incorporated in the committee’s governing policies.  If enacted these changes would greatly increase the credibility of the committee’s decisions.

Binghamton University is embracing the future through world class collaborations with academic institutions, businesses and community leaders.  I hope that B.U. Foundation will also lead its peers in the transparency and sustainability of its investment decisions.  I will not hesitate to support them in that mission.

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