This past Friday, President David Van Zandt published a message officially stating The New School’s decision to divest its endowment portfolio from fossil fuel companies, following a year and a half of student petitions, student senate resolutions, panels, and detailed divestment recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility.
This decision was a long time coming, but reflects the enormous commitment of students, faculty, staff, and other community members to push The New School to match its rhetoric about addressing climate change with a corresponding commitment to responsible investment. As PhD economics student Brandt Weathers commented, “our university's actions are catching up to its progressive history.”
Make no mistake, this was neither an easy nor a quick fight. The campaign calling on The New School to divest from fossil fuels officially began in October 2013, when The New School hosted a screening of Do the Math, the 350.org film that illustrates both the necessity and urgency of fossil fuel divestment. However, the story of this divestment goes back at least to December 2008, when, just three months following the stock market crash, over 100 students occupied The New School’s old 65 5th Avenue building. Their demands included a call for greater transparency around endowment investments, and the creation of a committee on investor responsibility to ensure that The New School’s investments would match the values of its community.
The Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR) was established as a direct result of this campaign. Responding to the community's calls for transparency and democratic oversight, the ACIR was designed as a representative body of students, faculty, staff and trustees. Since its founding, ACIR has worked closely with REC and student activists on a variety of issues, showing a level of engagement and integrity that is a model for universities around the country.
Regarding the role of ACIR in drafting the plan that became the blueprint for this fossil fuel divestment win, Brandt Weathers (who is also an ACIR Research Assistant) points out how their work is actually pushing the envelope for fossil fuel divestment everywhere:
The fact is that The New School plans on divesting in a very different way than other schools. We don't just want to say, 'oh we are only removing coal'…, or 'we only care about direct investments and not mutual funds that often make up the majority of investments'... we want to create a formula that tells exactly how much we're invested in fossil fuels throughout the endowment. This is a bigger task, but hopefully one that will offer unprecedented transparency and a model that other schools will follow to see how they measure up to one another.
Although the fossil fuel divestment movement has become a global phenomenon over the past few years, with 25 schools, 35 municipalities, and 70 religious institutions partially or fully committed to divestment as of February 3rd, 2015, The New School is still only the second institution of higher education in New York City to divest, following Union Theological Seminary this past June.
In addition, with an endowment of $220 million as of March 2014, The New School is the second largest college endowment in the world to commit to full fossil fuel divestment to date, following the University Dayton. To many students, this distinction seems highly fitting. As economics MA student and ACIR researcher Ian Howland puts it:
The primary appeal of The New School, to me and to a lot of students, is that it’s emphatically different than other universities with regard to both its unabashed progressiveness and its relentless strive, in every program offered, toward positive social change... It means a lot in general, but I think it means a whole lot more coming from a university in which seeing ideas turn into substantive action is such an integral part of its history.
Given New York City’s significance as not only a center of global financial capitalism, and as the home of the UN – the body which many believe is our planet’s best and only hope of meaningful policy on climate change, not to mention as the location of the largest climate change protest to date, this victory also takes on added global significance. The global significance of this achievement is a point of pride to those who worked to make it a reality. In the words of Ben Silverman, a recent graduate who helped found the divestment campaign and who passed a divestment resolution through the University Student Senate:
This is a victory for the whole fossil fuel divestment movement. Many people at The New School worked long and hard to get us to this place, and I think that this is proof positive that if you struggle and organize for change, you can win. What is important now is how those at The New School, the other major NYC universities, and elsewhere, can use this victory as a jumping off point to push for more divestment victories at more schools. We were the first in NYC to win divestment, we have no intention to be the last.
As fossil fuel divestment campaigns continue at other New York City area schools, including the CUNY system, Columbia, Barnard, and NYU, news of The New School decision will help legitimize student and community demands. In addition, this is good news for the ongoing effort to divest New York City’s pension funds from fossil fuel companies.
In fact, this victory could not come at a better time. February 13-14th is the first ever Global Divestment Day—an event that will be marked by thousands of protests and events on six continents increasing visibility and pressure on institutions everywhere to divest. Here in New York City, hundreds have already RSVP’d for an event in the Financial District. Valentine’s Day plans notwithstanding, all are welcome!