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Fossil Fuels: Divest Smith Response

September 11, 2013

Dear Members of Divest Smith College,

One of the first matters I have taken up since beginning the Smith presidency is your recommendation regarding fossil fuel divestment. I have been consulting closely on this matter with Board of Trustees Chair Elizabeth Eveillard, to whom your letter was also addressed.

I commend and endorse your commitment to environmental sustainability, a subject and a movement in which I strongly believe.

Even before I arrived at Smith, I was proud to learn of the college’s pledge to reach climate neutrality, as outlined in the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, as well as the specific and ambitious steps outlined in Smith’s Sustainability and Climate Action Management Plan. I thank you for your support of that plan and for spurring conversations on campus about it.

Your letter makes two related proposals: that Smith divest its holdings in all companies in the fossil fuel industry, and that it do so in five years (that is, by 2018). Those are ambitious goals. I look forward to educational forums this semester on the topic of divestment — I understand that CEEDS will be sponsoring one — where I can join the Smith community in gaining a deeper understanding of the current status of fossil fuel divestment in higher education and the implications of divestment for other core values of the college.

It may be helpful for you to have some of the information that is guiding me in thinking about this issue. At Smith, as at many of our peer institutions, fully one third of our operating budget comes from our endowment income. That income provides a critical funding stream that allows the college to provide financial aid to students with need, maintain facilities, shape the composition of the faculty to meet curricular objectives, and develop new initiatives and programs (such as the establishment of the first engineering program at a women’s college). A loss of endowment income would affect our ability to enroll a socioeconomically diverse student body and provide the close faculty attention and small residential college experience that is central to a Smith education.

It is also the case that Smith itself remains reliant on fossil fuels. We use natural gas to generate heat and electricity, gasoline for our vehicles, jet fuel and diesel for transit. That reliance has declined in recent years, particularly with the installation of the co-generation plant and the support of widespread conservation efforts, but fossil energy consumption is a significant and undeniable fact of our operation as a residential college. I strongly support our efforts to “divest” our own reliance on gas and oil.

I thank you for the important issues you have raised and look forward to an opportunity for us to meet as the semester gets under way. I am eager to join you and our community in continued discussion of Smith’s sustainability plans, priorities and strategies.


Kathleen McCartney