Middlebury College’s Sustainable Investments Initiative

by Olivia Grugan, Northeast Student Organizer

In May 2010, Middlebury College announced that it has designated a portion of the endowment to be actively invested in environmentally responsible companies. “The Sustainable Investments Initiative” was created with $4 million from Middlebury and an additional $35-70 million from The Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

For Middlebury, the Initiative reflects an effort to have the college’s investment strategies be consistent with its institutional values. The college’s mission statement refers to a commitment to integrate “environmental stewardship” in both curriculum and practices. Though the school’s on-campus efforts—carbon neutrality by 2016, biomass plant, recycling center, organic garden—have gained it a national reputation for environmental responsibility, as of the start of 2010, the endowment had not yet incorporated these values.

The Sustainable Investments Initiative represents a significant shift in college’s investment strategy.  For the first time in the college’s history, rather than judging the success of an investment exclusively by its financial performance, this fund will be monitored for environmental impact as well.  This shift is inspired by a hope that investing in environmentally sustainable initiatives will eventually become a standard investment practice.  Some predict that investing this way in the future will actually yield higher returns as environmental issues continue to become more salient across the globe.

In the official press release for the fund, Middlebury College’s President Ron Liebowitz is quoted, “We are pleased to be involved in this new initiative. We’re excited at the prospect of an initiative whose performance can further our educational mission while providing social and environmental value.”

While the creation of the fund is certainly a significant first step, there are still many questions left unanswered.  What kind of criteria should be used to evaluate companies in the fund, what the returns from the fund will be spent on, and how the fund will be monitored are just a few of these.

The students at Middlebury College hope that this Initiative will serve as a model for the rest of the endowment, providing an opportunity to test this investment strategy.  It is also their hope that this fund will serve as inspiration to other education institutions to evaluate how their own values are reflected in their endowment investments.

For the Responsible Endowments Coalition, this fund hopefully represents the beginning of a trend—school communities coming together to determine the values they hold in common and then applying those a their endowment, a vehicle for change with incredible amounts of untapped potential.

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