Fossil Fuels

I was surprised to find the editor defending the decision of the board of trustees not to divest from fossil fuels as “protecting academic freedom” (Letters, December 2014). Who was supposedly persecuted for their ideas? The only freedom protected by the trustees’ action is the freedom of capital to pursue profit without restriction. What impulse made the editor invoke academic freedom? 

I suggest that the editor was motivated by the need to make the action of the trustees correspond to the mission of the institution it supports. As I understand it and experienced it, Reed is committed to thinking critically about issues that matter and applying the results of that thinking in the real world. It feels wrong if Reed is supported by investments that are used to bring about what the scientific consensus believes is a climate disaster, and to promote lies and distortions that discredit critical thinking about that disaster and their role in creating it. Therefore we must be acting to protect academic freedom. That makes us feel better. 

The need for compatibility between mission and action (in this case the actions taken to support the institution financially) is real. So is the need to develop financial support to accomplish the mission. I do understand the “slippery slope” argument. If they agree to divest from fossil fuels, how will the trustees deal with what could become a never ending stream of demands to divest from other industries? Corporations exist to pursue profit, and most of them engage in at least some unsavory activities to that end. 

I suggest that the board of trustees solve this dilemma by reflecting on the mission of Reed. It is not to evaluate and rule on the public benefit of every corporation in which they may invest the endowment, but neither is it to blindly provide financing to institutions that are totally incompatible with its mission. I suggest the following as possible principles which would mandate divestment from fossil fuels without venturing too far out onto the “slippery slope”:

1) The divestment should be in response to an issue of global importance. Many injustices exist, but few have the reach of negatively impacting all of humanity (and most other species as well). 

2) The target of divestment should have proved itself resistant to taking reasonable action or reform.

3) There should exist a movement with some momentum and chance of success (the Rockefellers have joined the fossil fuel divestment movement). 

4) There should be some risk that if the divestment is successful that it will negatively affect the college’s investments. (In my previous letter [December 2014] I argued that by taking what is really an ideological stand that money must follow its own rules, the board of trustees was overlooking risks that should be taken into account in making wise investment decisions. )

The trustees of course will need to develop their own guidelines. It is a difficult task and they will not be able to avoid criticism from those scrutinizing their decisions. Still, they need to “person up” and make the tough calls to keep Reed’s investments consistent with its mission. 

—Roger Gadway ’67

White Salmon, Washington

Editor's Note: As I see it, my role is not to defend but to explain. Last year I had the opportunity to watch several trustees discuss the question of divestment with students. In that session, it was clear to me that the trustees were concerned about the potential impact of divestment on academic freedom because of the “slippery slope” argument. Thanks for focusing on this point in your valuable contribution to the debate.