A Letter to the Administration: When Will We Divest?

Dear President Martin and Board of Trustees,

It is past time to divest from fossil fuels and the prison-industrial complex.

We write to you on the eve of Amherst’s bicentennial, in a year that has brought continued police violence, a global pandemic, unprecedented wildfires, and the most hurricanes ever recorded in a single season. Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities who are most targeted by policing and incarceration have also disproportionately felt the effects of Covid-19 due to systemic exclusion from healthcare and disproportionate exposure to respiratory pollutants. Of the 250,000 annual deaths due to climate change, these same communities face the gravest risks.

Despite the urgency of climate change and systemic racism, Amherst College continues to treat these concerns as future problems. Our Climate Action Plan recognizes that “current students at Amherst College have been living with climate change realities — and inaction — their entire lives.” This is entirely correct — for our entire lives, we have watched those in power, including Amherst College, defer action in favor of economic gain. Although the college prides itself on being a leader among its peers, Amherst still profits from the destruction of our planet and the incarceration of Black people through its investments in the fossil fuel industry and the prison-industrial complex.

By investing, either directly or indirectly, in these industries, Amherst fails to stand in solidarity with marginalized communities who are disproportionately affected by climate change. It is no secret that the exploitation of our planet has gone hand-in-hand with the exploitation of people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous people. The very land that Amherst College sits on was stolen through settler colonialism and the displacement of Nonotuck, Nipmuc, Abenaki, and Pocumtuck Nations from their land. Meanwhile, the foundation of the institution itself, along with other elite colleges in the Northeast, was financed by the profits of slavery.

Today, the disproportionate concentration of pollution and other toxins in low-income communities of color, reveal how colonialism and racism persist. For instance, the extraction of fossil fuels in reservations across the United States creates dangerous environmental conditions, such as air quality hazards, while also threatening Indigenous sovereignty. Furthermore, systemic racism is manifested in the phenomenon of mass incarceration — the New Jim Crow. The prison industrial complex disproportionately incarcerates Black people; prisoners are often placed in private prisons that allow corporations to profit off of incarceration and prison labor in a modern-day form of slavery. Today, it is impossible to ignore the inextricable nature of the pandemic, systemic racism and the climate crisis, all of which threaten the human rights and bodily safety of Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) and low-income communities. One cannot disavow the systematic racism that led to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade while financing the criminal justice system that led to their killings, nor can one repudiate environmental destruction while invested in one of the central industries contributing to it. In short, climate justice is racial justice, and financial investment in these systems harms progress on both fronts.

While the college has stated its commitment to racial justice and climate justice, its money says otherwise. According to Amherst College’s Sustainable & Responsible Investments Report, seven percent of the college’s endowment — a massive sum of $173,000,000 — is invested in natural resources, a category which, alongside renewable energy and other resources, includes fossil fuels. In addition to its various investment portfolios, which include both interests in fossil fuels and likely in industries involved in the prison-industrial complex, Amherst has a series of directly held stocks. These stocks are confidential and can be accessed by any Amherst College student via the investments section of the website. What we can tell you is this: at least 24 percent of Amherst’s directly held stocks support the prison-industrial complex in some way. This includes supplying goods and services to these prisons, making donations, and investing in and profiting off of private prisons and/or prison labor.

In the early 2010s, students rallied for Amherst to divest from fossil fuels. In 2015, in response to this movement, President Biddy Martin said, “I do not agree with the assertion that if we do not favor divestment then we are supportive of the fossil fuel industry’s exacerbation of climate change.” This amounts to doublespeak: Amherst cannot both preach equality, inclusivity, and sustainability and financially support the very corporations that perpetuate systemic injustices and exacerbate climate change. 

By investing in fossil fuels and the prison-industrial complex as a shareholder, the college has an incentive to see that fossil fuel companies and private prisons earn a profit. Thus, Amherst profits off of the exploitation and harm of Black, Indigenous and people of color [BIPOC] in the United States and abroad. These investments are fundamentally contradictory to the values of the college. This contradiction cannot be reconciled without complete divestment from fossil fuels and the prison-industrial complex.

We are an institution of immense resources, capable of creating profound changes. Embarrassingly, the college has chosen to remain complacent by disregarding student-led movements for divestment and continuing to funnel money into the destruction of our Earth and the incarceration of Black people.

We understand that it is the Investment Office’s primary job to support the growth of the college’s endowment. Yet, beyond the immorality of fossil fuel investments, these holdings also contradict the fiduciary responsibility of the Investment Office. As we enter Amherst’s third century, investing in an industry that will be obsolete within the next century is short-sighted and fiscally irresponsible. Studies, such as Gioietta Kuo’s at Stanford’s Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, show that at our current level of usage, we will run out of coal, gas, and oil by 2090. We are already seeing the implications. In March, oil stocks fell dramatically, which had severe, though temporary, impacts on Amherst’s endowment. This volatility will only increase in the future due to increasing scarcity, fluctuating demand, and the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In addition, the Board of Trustees has previously recognized that moral obligations can supersede the generation of profit. For example, after at least 18 years of student organizing demanding that the college pursue “corporate withdrawal from South Africa” to pressure the government to end apartheid, the Board of Trustees divested in 1985. In 2006, Amherst divested from corporations supporting the Sudanese government’s genocide against people in the Darfur region. In reference to this decision, the Board said “a divestment action should be considered rarely and only in the face of human atrocities that are wholly inconsistent with the moral and ethical values of Amherst College.” If the crises of anthropogenic climate change and systemic racism are not wholly inconsistent with the moral and ethical values of Amherst College, what is? These are human atrocities, too. 

While it has spent far too much time resisting change, the Board of Trustees has historically responded to the will of the community. Once again, members of the Amherst community are demanding change. In 2015, the Board refused to meet our demands. But since then, many more institutions have divested from fossil fuels, and movements for divestment from private prisons have grown. We are behind our peers in the Five Colleges; Hampshire College divested from fossil fuels in 2011, the University of Massachusetts Amherst divested from its direct fossil fuel holdings in 2016 and Smith College committed to divesting from fossil fuels last year. Approximately 191 educational institutions worldwide, including Brown, Yale, Cornell, Georgetown and 52 other U.S. institutions have divested or committed to divesting from fossil fuels to some extent. Other institutions have also divested from private prisons — Hampshire College; the University of California system; California State University, Los Angeles; and Georgetown University have either fully divested or made statements in support of doing so. This college, too, will divest eventually — but how much harm will our investments inflict while the Board tries to prevent the inevitable? 

In anticipation of the bicentennial, the college released “Promise: The Campaign for Amherst’s Third Century.” In it, they promised to “embrace and promote [environmental sustainability] for the sake of generations to come.” They agree that “sustainability is a moral obligation and an Amherst imperative.” In Amherst’s Anti-Racism Plan released this summer, President Martin stated that “it is time for me as a president, who is also white, to take stronger stands and to enlist the entire Amherst community in bolder efforts to make Amherst a truly equitable and inclusive place.” 

Here we reach a crossroads: Will Amherst triumphantly enter its third century as the sustainable and equitable leader it has painted itself to be? Or will these claims amount to nothing more than empty promises? Will Amherst pave the way through action, or will we drag our feet, lugging with us the burden of failing and inequitable industries?

We demand that Amherst stands on the right side of history. Divest from direct and indirect investments in fossil fuels and private prisons by the end of 2021. 

Signed by: 

Sunrise Amherst College

Amherst College Black Student Union

Native and Indigenous Students Association

La Causa

Asian Pacific American Action Committee

Black Amherst Speaks

South Asian Students Association

Asian Students Association

Amherst College Pride Alliance

Amherst College Sustainable Ocean Alliance

Amherst College Reproductive Justice Alliance

Amherst Mutual Aid

Editors Note: On Nov. 24, President Biddy Martin emailed a response to this article to the community clarifying the college’s investments. The Student has published her response, which you could read here.