Fossil Free Mac changes tactics in fight for divestment

Gordy Moore

Building off a successful engagement during the Board of Trustees’ (BoT) visit to campus last semester, Macalester’s student divestment organization, Fossil Free Mac (FFM) will meet with the BoT’s Student Life Committee in May. Since its formation five years ago, FFM has advocated for Mac to divest its endowment from the Carbon Underground 200, the world’s top publicly-traded fossil fuel companies

According to FFM member Collin Dobie ’19, Macalester’s Investment Office estimates that the College’s endowment currently includes around $20 to $25 million invested in fossil fuel-related ventures through a number of mutual funds. Divesting from the mutual funds, though, would be a difficult undertaking for Macalester; indeed, this ‘traditional’ divestment approach was rejected by the BoT’s Social Responsibility Committee in the spring of 2015.

However, Fossil Free Mac will be taking a different approach this time around. The group altered their strategy after details about the institution’s investments in fossil fuel companies were unearthed during a meeting last November with Vice President for Administration and Finance David Wheaton and Chief Investment Officer Gary Martin: Macalester has $49 million invested in oil and gas limited private partnerships.

A visible presence, a visible result

When the BoT visited campus last October, FFM staged a large demonstration as the board passed through Bateman Plaza on Friday, October 7. Through this engagement, FFM made connections with trustees Seth Levine and Tim Hart-Andersen, a Presbyterian minister from Minneapolis who has become FFM’s central ally on the board. Macalester College Student Government (MCSG) President Merrit Stüven ’17 and BoT Student Liaison Peace Madimutsa ’17 gave a presentation of FFM’s concerns to the Student Life Committee that was less successful.

“Jeff Larson [a trustee FFM met with last semester] is on the Investment Committee, and he also happens to be on the Campus Life Committee, so when Merrit and Peace brought [divestment] up to that committee, he’s the one who said, ‘We already discussed this, it’s closed,’ and stole their time with that,” Dobie said.

According to Dobie, Larson was one of two trustees that FFM members met with last semester to no avail. After a Skype meeting with Levine on October 28, FFM met with Wheaton, Martin, professor Chris Wells, and Hart-Andersen on November 1 to further discuss how other schools have gone about divestment and learn even more about the endowment. FFM’s efforts were rewarded at the aforementioned November 21 meeting, where they learned for the first time about Macalester’s $49 million investment in private oil and gas partnerships.

FFM member Rebecca Krasky ’19 explained that it was a group retreat that proved pivotal in forming their new direction.

“We had a retreat in January and evaluated our plan for the semester,” Krasky said. “It felt very impactful that we push the school to get out of these partnerships—Mac is giving money to these companies to build pipelines and refineries.”

In contrast to Macalester’s approximately $25 million in fossil fuel investments that are tangled up in mutual funds, its private oil and gas partnerships are a different matter. Macalester, which also has private partnerships in the lumber industry, for example, must go out and find companies to partner with and fund.

“This isn’t just Mac finding useful mutual funds—this is Macalester seeking out these investments. They’re good investments, but what are the costs of our oil and gas investments with these good returns? We’re getting climate chaos,” Krasky said.

Of Macalester’s $700 million endowment, about 10 percent is in private partnerships. Due to the confidential nature of those partnerships, the Investment Office cannot disclose many specifics to FFM—but there are a few things that the organization does know.

“It’s much more direct and simple than mutual funds. The $49 million is in oil and gas infrastructure—the college enters into a partnership with a company and says, ‘We’re going to finance part of this project,’” Dobie said.

This means that, theoretically, Macalester’s private oil and gas partnerships could be helping to fund the construction of the large oil pipelines that have been the subject of widespread protests and activism in the last several years.

Unlike the complications involved with mutual funds divestment, FFM’s ask of the administration is simple: place a moratorium on private oil and gas investments by the college.

“The partnerships last five, 10, 15 years, and from what we understand, we’re locked in—there are most likely large fees to terminate early. So, we’re asking for a moratorium on future partnerships and then to not renew current ones as they expire,” Krasky said.

Once FFM decided that pushing for a moratorium on private oil and gas partnerships was their new main objective, they lost little time in continuing to build campus support.

Significantly, MCSG passed an official resolution calling on the administration to “…enact a moratorium on private oil and gas partnerships in order to divorce our endowment from direct funding of fossil fuel infrastructure.”

Beyond this measure of affirmation, FFM has almost 250 postcards in support of the moratorium signed by current Mac students — with a goal of 500 — that they plan to give to the BoT in May.

The group’s long-standing general petition for divestment, meanwhile, has 1,600 signatures from students, alumni, parents, faculty and staff.

The largest success for FFM this semester, though, came by way of a meeting held with Vice President for Student Affairs Donna Lee and President Brian Rosenberg that was facilitated through trustee Hart-Andersen.

The meeting, which took place on Tuesday, affirmed that FFM will have the opportunity to meet and present with the Student Life committee in May.

At a minimum, Dobie and Krasky are anticipating a spot on the Campus Life committee’s agenda to present their ask, hand out the resolution, and, depending on time, delve into their argument and answer questions.

The chair of the Campus Life committee, John Walton, has been receptive to FFM’s cause. The group’s hope is that Walton will be able to bring their ask to the floor of the BoT meeting and ask for a vote on the potential moratorium, which would occur at the BoT’s fall meeting.

In the meantime, FFM is continuing its advocacy—with a focus on the disconnect they see between these oil and gas partnerships and Macalester’s core values.

“During the meeting, Brian said that climate change is ‘the crisis of our time.’ That’s the phrase he used, but he’s not convinced yet that divestment is the way to solve these problems,” Dobie said.

“President Rosenberg said he would direct the Investment Office to look into the partnerships and do some studying of what the impacts would be, but obviously as FFM we think there’s a lot more to this—the simple reality is that these investments don’t align with Macalester’s values and are pretty hypocritical,” Krasky said.

But even if the moratorium is approved, FFM plans to continue to its advocacy.

“If this all works out, it by no means means that the Board is doing everything they should be,” Dobie said.

“We hope that the Board doesn’t think that FFM will go away and stop bugging them about climate justice,” he continued. “Even if they pass the moratorium.”