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The Civic Role of Higher Education

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Throughout American history, colleges and universities have provided leadership on the social and political issues of the day. One criterion of the health of our democracy is the active role of higher education in civic dialogue and as a catalyst for change based on prevailing values and advances in knowledge. The issue of our day is not simply an issue of the day, it is the greatest challenge to life on this planet in human history: climate change.

The debate about fossil fuel divestment on higher education's campuses and boardrooms suggests that there is an illogical division between the academy's commitment to empiricism and the willingness of trustees and presidents to combat the forces that lead us to self-destructive action. Climate change, influenced by our dependence on fossil fuels and increased carbon in the atmosphere, is deleterious to the health of our planet and the future of humankind. In respectable halls of learning, we acknowledge that this is more than a theoretical assertion. To understand the impact of climate change on the wellbeing of humanity and elect to gain income derived from hastening its oncoming means we become complicit in its effects.

At Sterling College, the administration and the trustees took a hard look at how we managed our endowment and the message we sent to our students, faculty, alumni and supporters. Like other colleges considering divestment, Sterling utilized financial vehicles that comingled our assets with other investors without a full appreciation for our exposure to the fossil fuel sector. There was certainly no lack of proven investment models from which Sterling or any other institution could choose. I am grateful that, as of June 2013, the Sterling endowment is part of the $1.2 billion in assets managed by Trillium Asset Management of Boston, becoming the first college in Vermont and only the third college in the nation to meet the fossil fuel free challenge put forward by the grassroots climate crisis organization, 350.org. While this decision was made as a symbolic witness to a critical global issue, it was also made with a firm belief that investment in fossil fuel extraction is imprudent for boards who wish to safeguard and steward assets in perpetuity.

Sterling is a small college with a small endowment. We only derive a small part of our operational funding from our investments, but our board takes its fiduciary responsibility as seriously as boards of institutions with much larger endowments. Some of these boards, particularly those that oversee endowments that are comingled with other institutions, have stated that they are at a disadvantage when it comes to divestment due to the complexity of the process. True enough. Complexity is, however, a poor defense of any decision regarding the exercise of fiduciary responsibility.

In the United States, the use of fossil fuels is knitted to the economic fabric into which higher education is now woven. In the 21st century, Sterling College still heats its lovely 19th century white clapboard campus with 19th century fossil fuel energy sources. While we don't derive income from investments in the fossil fuel sector, we do make compromises. Our compromises come at a cost to our institution and conflict with our mission and values. Better endowed institutions with 21st century infrastructure occasionally have justified the decision not to divest by virtue of being "green." Those institutions are obfuscating the very argument that promotes those investments. Nor does Sterling's commitment to divest excuse our community from its obligation to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Regardless, no board of trustees can purchase virtue, either through its capacity to commit funds to sustainability, or its willingness to divert funds and divest. To address this issue, we must look at the whole cloth.

Among the most important issues at play in this debate is the civic role of higher education. Are we as educators and trustees obligated to advocate for the health of the planet and the wellbeing of humankind, or simply to protect our institutions from harm and to increase the bottom line? The roles of trustee or college president require that we examine our conscience in our exercise of our fiduciary responsibility. Yes, the fossil fuel debate, as the South Africa apartheid debate a generation ago, will increase the complexity and challenge of our stewardship of our endowments, but it is a challenge inherent in the responsibilities we have accepted and critical to the health of our planet.