How A Small College Launched Divestment from Fossil Fuels

Unity College in Maine was the first in the U.S. to divest all fossil fuel holdings from its endowment. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Unity president Stephen Mulkey talks about why he sees this groundbreaking move as an ethical decision and an extension of the college’s mission.

Last month, when Stanford University announced it would divest its endowment of coal mining companies, it was following the lead of a tiny college in rural Maine that dubs itself “America’s environmental college.” A year and a half earlier, Stephen Mulkey, the president of Unity College stood on a stage with Bill McKibben, the founder of and lead cheerleader for the divestment movement, to announce that his college would be the first institution of higher learning to rid its endowment of all fossil fuel holdings. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Mulkey, a climate scientist, talks about the ethical imperative behind the decision to divest, and his vision for, as he puts it, a re-engineering of the way the environmental sciences are taught.

Yale Environment 360: In November of 2012, Unity College became the first institution of higher learning to divest its endowment of fossil fuel holdings. What about your institution allowed it to make that vanguard move?

Stephen Mulkey
Stephen Mulkey

Stephen Mulkey: I actually don’t think there was anything especially unique about us. We have a board of trustees whose primary concern is their fiduciary responsibility, which in the minds of many board members translates to financial responsibility, first and foremost, and that’s entirely appropriate. So their concerns were the same as you would have for any board of trustees anywhere. Secondarily, many of our board members, I think it would be fair to say, are politically conservative in their leanings and have a more middle of the road attitude about the urgency of climate change in particular and the use of endowment funds in an activist gesture such as this. To our advantage, we are an environmental college that has adopted sustainability science as articulated by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences as the framework for all of our academic programming. That framework clearly embraces the urgency of addressing climate change and climate change mitigation.

So perhaps getting to the point of asking the question of the board of trustees, “Are you willing to divest?” was easier because it was not a question that would not be viewed as a non sequitur for us. It was a very straightforward thing for an environmental college to be considering.

e360: How has the divestment affected your endowment?

Mulkey: Our endowment is bigger than ever. The two primary concerns that boards have about endowment is, number one: divesting will cause them to lose profits that they otherwise would acquire. The financial industry’s own data show that that is absolutely unequivocally false. Socially-responsible investment, including those careful studies of fossil fuel divestment, show that by and large there’s no reason to expect your divested portfolio to do any worse than the market averages, assuming that you have active management of your portfolio.

“The goal is to revoke their social license to have a business model that includes the destruction of civilization.”

The second concern is that the trades necessary to reduce your exposure to something negligible would incur cost. In fact, that’s simply not reality because all you’re doing is adding another criteria to the investment manager’s decision tree. There’s absolutely no reason why that should cost you more money.

e360: Critics of the divestment movement discount its ability to put any kind of real economic pressure on fossil fuel companies to, say, invest in renewable energy resources. What are your thoughts regarding how much economic pressure divestiture really creates?

Mulkey: Well, if the 30 billion dollars that exists in endowments in the nation’s colleges and universities were all divested, I think that would probably have a noticeable impact. Are we likely to get there? No, I don’t think so. I think that the goal is not to put financial pressure on these industries — the goal is to revoke their social license to have a business model that includes the destruction of civilization.

And that really is what is at stake. Any mainstream climate scientist will tell you that the logical endpoint of mining and burning all of the known reserves, which is what those fossil fuels companies’ full intention is, would be tantamount to creating a planet that’s four to six degrees centigrade warmer than it is now, on average. And such a planet is not consistent with the civilization that we currently have. So I believe, in the broadest sense, that every institution of higher education has, as its mission, the renewal of civilization. Such a mission is incompatible with investing in fossil fuels.

e360: Harvard University’s President Drew Faust, in a letter explaining why divestment will not happen there, wrote, “Conceding of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the university into the political process, or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise. The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.” What is your reaction to that?

“The college is acting unethically to have major investments in those companies.”

Mulkey: Well, I certainly don’t want our endowment to become responsive to the political cause du jour. I think that would be, as President Faust has suggested, a dangerous way to use your endowment. I do believe, however, that climate change and fossil fuels are in a wholly separate category because of their enormous threat to the future of our clients, the students that go to college. In that respect, the college is operating, please quote me, unethically, to have major investments in those companies. So I fundamentally disagree with her when it comes to this particular issue. I can’t think of anything that would be more important than for Harvard to make a clear, strong statement about the ethical nature of its investments. She simply is wrong, in my opinion. I would very much like her to give me concrete examples of how this would endanger the academic side of the house. I simply cannot fathom that.

e360: You certainly haven’t pulled any punches regarding the issue of divestment. You’ve written, “In our zeal to be collegial, we engage with those who are paid by vested interests to argue that our earth is not in crisis.” What kind of feedback do you get from colleagues at colleges and universities across the country?

Mulkey: Very positive. In fact, usually what happens when I speak publicly or at other institutions is my audience is rallied. They tell me that it’s high time to tell the truth about the future and about the challenges that we face, and that the science is very clear on this.

I’m a climate scientist myself, an ecologist, I worked on gas exchange in tropical rainforests. As a scientist I can speak with some authority, I have some credibility. I read the peer-reviewed literature on climate science. I know what it says. Many of the climate scientists have been my colleagues. I’m very comfortable in the statements that I’m making, and I’m sorry if they’re politically unsatisfying to some people.

“I’m comfortable with the statements I’m making, and I’m sorry if they’re politically unsatisfying to some people.”

When we divested, no more than a few weeks afterward, we got a check from a donor that we’d never known before, for $30,000 simply for having divested. Virtually none of our alumni have suggested that we’ve made a mistake in any way shape or form. The vast majority of people have been overwhelmingly supportive. They’ve been especially supportive not just of divestment, but the framing of our curriculum under sustainability science, which is really what I want the college to be known for.

e360: In addition to being outspoken on the divestiture issue, you’re also calling for this re-engineering of higher education when it comes to environmental sciences. What is wrong with the way that environmental sciences are taught now?

Mulkey: My personal epiphany came in the early 2000s. I was working in South America, going to a field site in eastern Amazonia, when it suddenly struck me that collecting more bricks for the edifice of knowledge was not adequate. One thing led to another and I began designing interdisciplinary environmental science programs.

The reality is that the vast majority of these programs across the country reside within departments. Some of them are even small sections of departments with other names. The claim to the term “interdisciplinary” is often quite a reach when you actually look at what these departments are capable of doing, what kinds of disciplines they’re capable of bringing to the table.

e360: What is it though, about a transdisciplinary program, as you’ve put it, versus an interdisciplinary program that makes it so critical?

Mulkey: The best way to describe that is to give you an example. Let’s take an environmental problem in water — wetland management. You would bring students into a curriculum and tell them to take a few of these courses, a few of those courses, and to affiliate with this or that outside agency, and that would represent their interdisciplinary exposure. In reality, what they end up with is a hodgepodge of curriculum that may or may not be exactly germane to the problem at hand. Occasionally there are some capstone courses, and frequently those capstone courses do not integrate the knowledge. The example that I like to give that is typical of this process is you bring a bunch of experts to sit around a table to talk about wetland management and three or four meetings down the road you have effectively defined the word “model.”

“Interdisciplinary environmental science programs do not have clear goals in terms of what their education is all about.”

The transdisciplinary process puts the student at the nexus of the information and teaches them how to get all of the information they need to understand the problem and to build a model for how it can be solved, or how it can at least be addressed. And so it essentially makes the students themselves the clearinghouse for the disciplines rather than bringing different disciplines that have their own different paradigms, their own different perspectives, their own languages frequently to the table to address the problem, which is a very slow and a very cumbersome way of doing it. The transdisciplinary process has been championed by various educators at Arizona State University. It’s also a primary tool that’s been used in sustainability sciences in Japan. It’s received a lot of attention lately in terms of producing students who can be ready to walk out the door and be ready to engage the kinds of problems that we’re facing right now.

e360: As you said, your college emphasizes sustainability sciences. Tease out the differences between environmental sciences and sustainability sciences.

Mulkey: The environmental sciences typically are most focused on environmental issues or the environment itself — ecology, natural resources — all the things you would expect to see in an environmental science program. And in fact, there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s fine. What the sustainability science framework does is add to this the expectation that the end point of understanding those environmental processes and the human dynamic interface with them, is to create a planet where humans can live sustainably for an indefinite period of time.

It’s the sort of thing that has a different set of goals as the endpoint, and this is what I meant when I said that the interdisciplinary environmental science programs do not have clear end points or clear goals in terms of what their education is all about, what their research is all about.

As an aside, quickly let me say that this does not obviate the need for basic literacy skills, and so the liberal arts remain the foundation of this college. To that, we’re adding a strong emphasis on information literacy, the ability to go get information and use it. We train in the natural resources, conservation law enforcement, adventure therapy, forestry, fisheries and wildlife — all of these are areas that have key sustainability issues at their heart.