Response to the President and Chair of the Board of Trustees on Divestment

Vanessa Glass ’26 responds to a letter from President Elliott and Chair of the Board of Trustees Andrew Nussbaum, offering counterarguments to several points from the letter.

Amidst the ongoing Israeli military siege in occupied Gaza, the Amherst College community is facing a crucial test of its commitment to serving the global community. Questions regarding the appropriate role of Amherst’s $3.34 billion endowment are at the forefront of community debate. As student groups, the Association of Amherst Students, faculty, and alumni call for divestment from a series of Israeli military-affiliated entities, the Board of Trustees remains steadfast in its refusal to do so.

On April 24, President Michael Elliott and Chair of the Board of Trustees Andrew Nussbaum published a letter in The Student in response to a recent alumni condemnation of Amhert’s refusal to divest. Elliott and Nussbaum appropriately write that the threshold for endowment divestment is “extraordinarily high,” because a staggering 57 percent of the college’s annual budget is supported by the fund, “the second highest among all colleges and universities.” The President and Chairman subsequently outlined four central “ethical and practical challenges” inhibiting the college’s ability to divest from the specified entities. Their arguments have startling implications, not only for the immediate issue of divestment, but also for how the current administration aims to divorce its financial responsibilities from ethical stewardship.

First, Elliott and Nussbaum’s letter notes that “trustees are firmly of the view that the endowment is not an appropriate or effective tool for foreign policy debate and deliberation.” The college’s history, however, tells a different story. In 1978, Amherst joined 155 peer institutions in divesting from the South African government in the wake of its apartheid policies. Similarly, in 2006, the college withdrew funds from companies financing the Sudanese government’s genocidal actions in Darfur. These instances demonstrate a historical precedent where the college has used its endowment investments to demonstrate its stance on pressing global issues, contradicting the assertion that the endowment is unsuitable for such purposes.

Second, the President and Chairman argue that divestment “would have no measurable impact on the crisis in Gaza.” Crucially, the authors fail to clarify what they mean by “impact.” If we measure the success of divestment solely based on its financial impacts, this argument may very well be true. After all, the economic consequences of Apartheid-era divestment were minimal: lowered United States share prices alone were not economically damaging to South Africa. However, I reject the notion that divestment impact is a strictly financial matter. In the case of South Africa, divestment activism was a powerful catalyst for political change. The movement worked to center South Africa’s apartheid regime within public consciousness and ultimately drove unprecedented anti-apartheid organizing and political action in the U.S. I am not alone in my politics-focused approach to divestment. In the formal announcement of the Amherst College Board’s decision to divest from Sudan, then Amherst College President Anthony W. Marx acknowledged the powerful role of divestment in sparking national political change. President Marx went so far as to say that “The Amherst Board has been thoughtful and exacting in considering how to contribute to change in the Sudan, using our influence consistent with our principles.”

Third, Elliott and Nussbaum label divestment as “practically impossible” because “nearly all of the college’s investment in equities is indirect, via asset managers whose decisions we do not control.” This argument inaccurately presents divestment as an all-or-nothing endeavor, eluding the gradations and compromise involved in divestment. Furthermore, their defense implies that the college and its leaders lack agency and oversight in the investment decisions of our asset managers. Amherst’s Sustainability and Investment Policy, along with our most recent commitment to phase out fossil fuels, deploys a combination of divestment, shareholder activism, and investment manager communication strategies to actively incorporate environmental and social risks into our investment process. These efforts highlight the College’s ability to engage with ethical considerations within our existing framework.

Fourth, the authors explain that divestment cannot occur without a “broad and clear consensus of the college community.” It is possible that they are correct in this assumption. It must be noted, however, that there is no traceable evidence of community-wide consensus in support of divestment when Amherst sold its shares in the South African apartheid government in 1978, nor when we withdrew funds from Sudan in 2006. In fact, Dr. George A. Scott writes in his 1987 “Case study of a liberal arts and divestment crisis at Hampshire College” that there was no divestment consensus among the greater Hampshire community even shortly after it helmed the national divestment effort from South Africa.

Most importantly, given that the college’s mission is to educate undergraduates “so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge,” Amherst must expect its students to rigorously pursue the information necessary to cultivate comprehensive perspectives. The demonstrated student appetite for increased investment transparency evidences a desire to put this mission to practice. But there is a clear roadblock: Amherst College lacks an institutionalized means of providing students with the basic resources and knowledge necessary to make informed divestment decisions. This renders the college’s consensus claim incomprehensible at best, and bad faith at worst. Although there are limits to transparency regarding the portfolio decisions of our endowment investment managers, there is clearly more that can be done.

I call on President Elliott and Chairman Nussbaum to think more expansively about the possibilities vested in the college’s dextrous community and fiduciary heft. We have the capacity to sustain our robust endowment without foregoing our civic duty.