Divestment is the Real Investment

“Your money is being used to destroy our environment.”

This is the argument that members of SUNY New Paltz’s Environmental Task Force (ETF) make: regardless of if you are a perfectly green individual who diligently recycles, eats organic and composts, and you’ve long given up your plastic water bottles — or if you haven’t yet embraced the full “granola” lifestyle — it doesn’t matter. 

“We don’t want to fund climate change with the money that we are putting in the hands of the school,” says Billie Golan, fourth-year environmental studies contract major and president of Students for Sustainable Agriculture (Sus-Ag).

“It is our money, and we have a right to request that it is not [invested in these companies],” Golan said. As both the president of Sus-Ag and part of an ad-hoc group of students under ETF’s Sustainability Committee that leads the rallying cry for divestment, Golan is adamant that the university needs to implement a timeframe to become more environmentally responsible with student finances.

To keep up with rising costs of attendance, it is common for universities supplement the income they receive from tuition payments. For SUNY New Paltz, in charge of supplementing this income is the SUNY New Paltz Foundation.

The Foundation’s objective is to raise private contributions from alumni, students or other contributors, and then the reinvest that capital: its return on investment allows the Foundation to continue to support students with a growing variety of available scholarships that aren’t covered by state or federal money. In order to secure a stable return on investment, a significant portion of these funds are invested in companies that directly sell fossil fuels.

Students arguing for divestment acknowledge the vital function of the Foundation, but this far from silences their concerns.

“They have an obligation to be financially responsible, to have money to invest in students. And that is very important,” said Eli Campbell, fourth-year visual arts major. “But what we’re saying is there’s also a moral responsibility. What good is it if we’re preparing students for a future that doesn’t exist, because we’ve destroyed the planet?”

The argument to divest from fossil fuels has reached the attention of our college’s leaders, but substantial progress has yet to be made. President of SUNY New Paltz, Donald P. Christian, released a statement in late 2016 to address the divestment movement’s concerns, saying, “My goal would be to divest as expeditiously as possible without harming the integrity of our endowments and the returns that support students and programs.”

The divestment group demanded that the Foundation start phasing out investments in fossil fuels no later than May 2017. This date has, obviously, come and gone; however, the Committee has already had special meetings specifically to discuss this topic, with additional meetings already planned over the next several months,” said Kristin Cash-Holland, Chief Financial Officer of the SUNY New Paltz Foundation. “The Foundation has made a commitment to fully explore this issue, and will share its plans on how to handle divestment by the end of this calendar year (December 2017).”

Inspired by SUNY ESF’s recent announcement that it would be removing investments from 200 companies that had been identified as having greatest climate impact, the divestment group at SUNY New Paltz is ramping up their pressure on the Foundation board, as they hope to be the second of the SUNY campuses to divest.

“SUNY New Paltz likes to be a leader and an innovator, and so we’re trying to [argue that] if we divest, we’d be the second SUNY school to do so, and [that would] ignite a movement,’” Golan explained.

The divestment group is currently running a letter-writing and postcard campaign directed at Foundation members like Board President Michael Keegan, who is also to be a commencement speaker at graduation this year.

Note from administration: When considering divestment, the funds at issue are contributed by private donors, some living, some not, to establish endowments through the Foundation, not student tuition dollars. The Finance and Investment Committee and the Foundation Board has a responsibility to manage donated funds wisely for the purposes donors intended, balanced alongside social responsibilities like divesting from fossil fuels.