Statement from President Donald Christian to read at Academic Senate meeting on October 28, 2016
I met with student members of the Environmental Task Force on October 12, 2016 to discuss their interest and motivation to encourage the SUNY New Paltz Foundation to divest from fossil fuels. I shared with them that the Finance Committee of the SUNY New Paltz Foundation would take up this issue at its next scheduled meeting on November 17 and that I would encourage them to pursue responsible divestment and reinvestment. That topic is on their agenda, and they already have been in conversation with our investment manager about what this process would entail.
I opened that October 12 meeting with students with the following statement:
"I am supportive of your goals and don’t need to be persuaded to begin working on how to advance them. I’m an ecologist, and have some understanding of how ecosystems work and the impact that climate change is having. I’m also familiar with 350.org and much of the national conversation about divestment. So I support this move, even while I recognize that most of us drive cars, heat our houses and use public transportation that uses fossil fuels. We are probably decades away from having the technology to meet peak electricity demands without using fossil fuels to generate electricity."
As a society, we must address climate change more aggressively than we have, and the College should play its role. How we head down that path is complex, and the question is how, and in what manner. What are the costs to SUNY New Paltz students and our programs? That’s what I emphasized in my discussion with these students.
I tried to help students understand that endowment funds are invested, and a portion of the annual returns on those investments are made available to support scholarships and programs on the campus. These endowments are held by the SUNY New Paltz Foundation, which is a separate, private non-profit that supports the College by raising money and managing it for the long-term benefit of our students and programs.
I shared with students an endowment booklet that shows the many endowments that produce scholarships, program opportunities that enrich our campus. Many of those gifts were made by former students who want to pay forward the educational opportunities they experienced here. To be fiscally responsible, we must protect those funds and the opportunities they create for students and faculty. I believe that socially responsible investment must include investment in education, and safeguarding our endowments must be part of our thinking as we pursue divestment and reinvestment.
I also explained to the students that I respect standards and protocols for college governance. We have a Sustainability Committee that is a part of our faculty governance structure, and I encouraged them to take this idea to that committee, which they did. The resolution before you came as a result of that connection between the students on the Environmental Task Force and the Sustainability Committee. And I encouraged the Sustainability Committee to bring the resolution forward through the next levels in our governance structure. I did so because I want to be sure that members of our community recognize what is at stake in terms of our endowment and program support, and have a voice in how we approach this issue.
Again, to be clear, I indicated to students my full support for divestment and reinvestment – done in a way that does not harm, or minimizes harm, to our endowments. I will point out that no foundation’s endowments are identical. We have seen some best practices in how other foundations have approached divestment, and also some of the caution they have exercised in divesting over time rather than in a hurry.
In that vein, I support the spirit of this resolution that is before you today. I would ask that the Senate consider modifying the language of the resolution to address two issues. One is the May 2017 deadline for divesting from direct investments in fossil fuel companies. I am concerned that that timeline may be unrealistic if we are to divest without harming our endowments and their returns.
Alternative language might be “beginning immediately, and proceeding toward this goal as rapidly as possible while not harming the endowment or its returns.”
Another is the final section of the resolution asking the Foundation to reinvest funds in sustainable companies. Part of the challenge is that right now at least many renewable energy companies, for example, produce limited returns on investment, which would have a negative effect on our endowments and their returns.
I might propose the following alternative:
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the SUNY New Paltz Faculty encourage the SUNY New Paltz Foundation to promote sustainability by including this goal, along with the other considerations that guide its decisions, in its ongoing and regular review of the Foundation’s investments.
I conclude this statement with the same one that I shared with students when we met: I look forward to working with students, faculty and staff and the Foundation on this issue to find a comfortable path that does not compromise our support for students through our educational mission.
I am comfortable having this statement included in the record of this meeting of the Academic Senate.