Brown Board Shoots Down Coal Divestment

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Brown University’s board of trustees recently decided against a proposal to remove university investments in the 15 largest U.S. coal companies, despite the recommendation of the school’s advisory committee and student protests.

On Oct. 25, Brown Divest Coal members marched across campus, ending with a rally outside Macmillan Hall, where the university’s advisory board, known as The Corporation of Brown University, was meeting to consider divesting the school’s endowment from the coal industry.

The student group also called on five members of The Corporation to recuse themselves from the vote because of their involvement in coal industry investments: Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America; Richard Friedman, head of merchant banking at Goldman Sachs; Steven Cohen, founder of hedge fund SAC Capital; Theresia Gouw, partner with Accel Partners, which runs a coal trading platform with KKR & Co.; and Todd Fisher, chief administrative partner at KKR & Co. All are Brown alumni, except Cohen, who is a parent of Brown University students.

In a letter to the Brown community, President Christina Paxson said the school’s guidelines for divestiture made it clear that coal is directly responsible for the “social harm” provision. But “is it the case that the social harm from coal is so grave that divestiture is warranted?” Paxson wrote. ”Absent a bright-line threshold for gravity, this is a judgment call, and a difficult one at that. I believe that although the social harm is clear, this harm is moderated by the fact that coal is currently necessary for the functioning of the global economy.

Paxson said divestiture wouldn't have an economic impact on the coal industry. “Brown’s holdings are much too small for divestiture to reduce corporate profits," she said. Paxson noted that divestiture conveys “only a nebulous statement — that coal is harmful — without speaking to the technological and policy actions needed to reduce the harm from coal, actions where Brown can make real and important contributions through teaching and research.”

Paxson said the divesting proposal is "over," but students have vowed to fight on.

“To me this vote shows that Brown doesn’t take its commitments to social justice and combating climate change seriously," said Divest Coal member Kari Malkki, a Brown University sophomore. "What’s the point of teaching about climate science or environmental racism if we won’t act on that knowledge? Today our administration was too timid to challenge the status quo, but we’re going to keep pushing them to stand for what is right."

Brown Divest Coal was organized a year ago to take part in the global divestment effort launched by activist Bill McKibben and his organization 350.org. Since last fall, students have organized rallies, phoned supporters, hosted teach-ins, met with administrators, and gathered more than 3,600 petition signatures from students, alumni, faculty and staff in support of divestment.