By Ned Kleiner ’16

Volume XXXVII, Issue 1, February 21, 2014

Drawing of person pinching their nose and making a face while holding out a vest labeled "Coal" and surrounded by lines indicating smellA couple weeks before the end of fall semester, I got an email from Cullen Murphy, the chair of the Board of Trustees, asking me out on a coffee date: “Hi Ned, I’m going to be on campus on Friday, December 6. Will you be around, and perhaps free for a cup of coffee?” Of course, what he really wanted was to discuss the divestment movement in a less formal setting than a boardroom in the Lord Jeff, but the tone was clear: I am your friend.

And so, a week later, I found myself sitting with Cullen (I addressed him as “Mr. Murphy” initially and was quickly corrected) at Black Sheep. Cullen wore a professorial tweed suit and began our conversation by asking me all about my experience at Amherst: what I was majoring in, how I liked my classes, whether I was worried about my upcoming exams—the works. He was in town to talk at the Amherst Select dinner that evening: had I heard about those? Had any of my friends been to one of them? What had they thought? And then, after he had done his best to create the impression that this wasn’t going to be a business meeting, we got down to business.

Now I should probably give you some background. I am a member of Amherst’s coal divestment campaign. Our overarching goal, like that of divestment campaigns across the country, is to show that the environmental movement can and must play offense—that we are not going to sit back and wait for new pipelines and coal plants to be proposed just so we can chain ourselves to them, but that we are going to take the fight to the coal industry. We are doing this by going after what a coal company holds most dear: its bottom line. On campuses around the country, students are asking their boards of trustees, corporations, and presidents to remove any investments their college has in the coal industry. This would have a double impact: it would reduce coal companies’ ability to raise capital, restricting their access to the more than $400 billion dollars in the endowments of U.S. and Canadian colleges, and it would also send the message that the coal industry has become a pariah, so dirty that even institutions as obsessive about their endowments as Harvard, Yale, and Amherst are unwilling to make money off of it.

Our divestment campaign has had its ups and downs since it began fall semester of last year, but its pivotal moment came at a meeting this past October, when four members of the divestment campaign sat down with a group of five trustees, including Cullen. We discussed many aspects of divestment, and the trustees seemed to take our ideas seriously, even if they didn’t always agree with us. At one point, two of the trustees started heatedly debating divestment while the rest of us just watched. At the end of the meeting, Cullen said that they would bring it before the entire board the next day and that he would be in touch with us soon.

So there I was, sitting across a table from Cullen at Black Sheep. He had some bad news: the board of trustees had not decided to divest from coal. He didn’t go so far as to say they had decided against it, since they hadn’t really decided anything, there simply “wasn’t a consensus.” And that was even worse news: the board of trustees was not going to act on divestment until there was a consensus of its members. That is to say, even if we convince nearly all of the trustees that divestment is a good idea—that it would be simultaneously good for the planet and for the college’s image, that it would help to save the lives of poor immigrants living in the shadow of a coal plant—as long as there is one dissenting voice, one holdout on the board (which includes, by my count, six investment bankers, two corporate lawyers, a petroleum geologist, and a former commodities trader), there will be no divestment. This is what activists call a “soft no”: we’re not going to actually do what you want, but we’re not going to refuse to do it either.

Naturally, this puts those of us working on divestment in a difficult position. The entire point of the divestment campaign is to go on the offensive, to show that we can leverage the power of the institutions we’re part of against those that are working to destroy the planet. But here, it’s unclear what a victory really looks like since we won’t be able to get the trustees to put the issue to a simply majority vote. If divestment is going to be a long and possibly unwinnable fight, then what’s the point? The campaign has quickly diminishing returns: coal is an obsolete fuel, and within fifteen to twenty years the coal industry will be very marginal; divestment would only help to hasten the process.

There’s no clear way to proceed, since protests on campus will be largely invisible to the trustees unless they’re actually disruptive: We’d have to make somebody’s day miserable. But we don’t want to cause real problems for our fellow students, the faculty has been relatively supportive of our efforts, and Biddy was actually helpful in getting us a meeting with the trustees in the first place. We’re currently considering going after a couple of the college’s most vulnerable areas: alumni donations and prospective students. It would certainly reach the trustees if we started getting accepted students and alumni to sign petitions regarding divestment, but the cost/benefit analysis is murky at best: As Cullen warned me, the more aggressively we escalate our campaign, the more likely we are to alienate the trustees who currently support us.

And so we are left with an unpalatable choice, but one which we as a group have to make: as horrible as it sounds, we can give up and accept Cullen’s soft no, or we can continue fighting our campaign, even with the understanding that there might not be a light at the end of the tunnel.