Why did the Board of Trustees decide to study this issue?
Climate change is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest threats facing our world today; however, there is no clear consensus on how to solve this complex issue. Over the past several years, there has been considerable debate on campus about divestment as a tactic to address climate change. Approximately 150 students occupied the president’s office in February 2017 to demonstrate their commitment to the issue. A strong academic community works to foster respect for differing opinions and encourages civil discourse on the merits of any issue. Modeling that approach, in April 2017 a Board of Trustees task force was appointed to study ways in which Grinnell College can have a positive impact on climate change, including but not limited to divestment.
What charge was given to the task force and how did it evolve and expand?
The task force was charged with exploring the issues in an unbiased, intellectually rigorous, transparent, and inclusive manner. The task force members made two important decisions at the outset: There was strong agreement among the members that climate change is a critical global threat, with the use of fossil fuels a primary contributor. As such, they expanded the charge of the task force to investigate actions that Grinnell College could take to have a positive impact on climate. Although fossil fuel divestment was the principal reason for creating the task force, it was not the exclusive focus in evaluating potential actions for addressing the critical issue of climate change.
How diverse and thorough were the resources the task force examined?
The task force reviewed input from numerous sources representing many points of view. Among resources consulted were the Grinnell College Sustainability Plan (PDF) Bringing Responsible Investment to Campus (PDF) a handbook for committees on investor responsibility from the Responsible Endowments Coalition. Several major resource organizations were consulted, including 350.org, Ceres, Climate Action Network International, and Intentional Endowments Network. In addition, the task force had access to more than 130 articles related to climate change, divestment, energy, fossil fuels, investment, sustainability, and fossil fuels-related considerations undertaken by higher education institutions. These resources also are available on the College’s task force website.
Was the task force given authority to order divestments?
Creation of the task force did not supersede the divestment sub-policy (PDF) approved by the Investment Committee on Feb. 3, 2017. Regardless of the task force's recommendation, any formal request that the College divest of fossil fuel holdings would be subject to the Investment Committee policy.
Who decided to set up a task force?
Board of Trustees Chair Patricia Jipp Finkelman ’80, after consultation with the board’s Executive Committee, appointed a task force to study the issues and make recommendations at the board’s April 2018 meeting.
Who served on the task force?
The task force consisted of three trustees: Michael Kahn ’74 (task force chair), Kathryn Jagow Mohrman ’67, and Edward Senn ’79.
Did the task force have assistance with setting up its processes?
The board requested that President Raynard S. Kington appoint a supporting advisory committee of students, faculty, staff, and alumni to support the task force’s work.
What role did the advisory committee play?
The advisory committee identified resources for the task force to consider, including experts who participated in campus dialogues.
Who served on the advisory committee?
Wayne Moyer, Advisory Committee chair, Rosenfield Professor of Political Science; Sayles Kasten ’19; Lucia Nelson ’20; Zach Steckel ’18, Student Government Association treasurer; Summer White ’18, Student Government Association president; Kent Messer ’94; Jessica Roff ’93; Liz Queathem, senior lecturer in biology; Jim Swartz, Dack Professor of Chemistry; Chris Bair ’96, environmental and safety manager; Debra Lukehart, vice president for communications; and Sarah Smith, program manager, community enhancement and engagement.
Did the task force use any outside resources as part of its work?
Thirty expert speakers made presentations, and other resources were identified by both the task force and advisory committee, which added a great deal to the process.
What did the task force do to aid communication and transparency?
This task force website was created with information and links to documents reviewed by the task force, campus dialogue session videos, and other information task force members considered.
How did the task force process the information it gathered?
Task force members spent several months combing through all of the information they received plus other research and information the advisory committee provided for their review. They met weekly between August 2017 and April 2018 to build a strong foundation for working through decisions on divestment and other actions the College could take to positively address climate change.
How did the task force decide what to recommend?
The task force process was created to address serious questions in a completely open, inclusive, and transparent manner. The voices and views of students, faculty, alumni, and staff all played a major role, not just the voices of outside experts, in the task force’s recommendations.
Why and how were campus dialogues part of the task force’s process?
The task force decided to structure its work to serve as a shared learning experience for the College community. The dialogues were open to all members of the campus and local community, with speakers offering different perspectives and with different responsibilities related to fossil fuels. The dialogues were structured to make the process open and transparent and to model evidence-based inquiry and civil discourse.
Did speakers bring different perspectives to the dialogue process?
Speakers — and their perspectives — were purposefully diverse, ranging from Laura Trombley, former Pitzer College president, “Pitzer’s process leading to divestment,” to Jeff Hanson, director of environmental services, Alliant Energy, “What’s happening in the energy world?,” to Amy O’Brien, managing director, head of responsible investment, TIAA, “How does socially responsible investing impact climate change?.”
How were the dialogue topics organized?
The topics were organized into three main categories: 1) Managing Grinnell’s Endowment, Trustee Stewardship, and Investment Decisions; 2) Arguments in Support of and in Opposition to Fossil Fuel Divestment; 3) Curricular Support and Reducing the College’s Carbon Footprint.
What was discussed during the campus dialogues?
Speakers from on and off campus were invited to share their expertise about topics including divestment, investor activism, Grinnell’s sustainability plan, and trends in renewable energy.
Who was invited to the dialogues, and how did they have input?
All dialogues were open to members of the College and local community. All events were live-streamed for anyone who could not attend in person. Participation was welcomed through a moderated question-and-answer process, with every attendee having an opportunity to ask questions.
How many campus dialogues were there?
During the 2017 fall semester, three series of dialogues totaling 15 sessions with 30 speakers were held on campus during September, October, and November.
What sort of participation was there for the dialogues?
Members of the advisory committee were actively engaged in each campus session. The best-attended dialogue event, with approximately 75 people in the audience, was a student debate focused on fossil fuel divestment, moderated by Mark Baechtal, the Debate Union's faculty adviser.
Is there any permanent record of the dialogues?
All public campus sessions with the task force were video-recorded and are available on the College’s YouTube Fossil Fuels and Climate Impact playlist. The task force’s Campus and Community Communications webpage contains links to recorded sessions and various presentation materials.
Did the task force actively seek student input and factor that into their recommendations?
Grinnell students played an important role throughout the process. In addition to the student activism that helped bring board-level attention to the question of divestment, the four student members of the advisory committee were active, thoughtful participants throughout and asked the dialogue speakers important questions. All student interactions with outside speakers were respectful and constructive, and civil discourse was the norm. The task force sought maximum opportunities to hear from and speak directly with interested students; and task force members, as well as nearly all of the dialogue speakers, met informally with students and others in Spencer Grill in the evenings after formal sessions had ended.
What sustainability-related recommendations did the task force make, and the board endorse?
The task force’s major sustainability recommendations, endorsed by the board, were to:
- Take significant actions on campus to reduce our individual and institutional carbon footprint and enhance sustainability efforts through implementation of the College’s Sustainability Plan.
- Create a standing campus Sustainability Committee with faculty, staff, and student members that would make recommendations for accomplishing the goals of the Sustainability Plan.
What did the task force note regarding the College’s Sustainability Plan?
The task force recommended that climate and sustainability actions could include reducing the use of fossil fuels in the operations of the College, acting on recommendations in the College’s well-developed Sustainability Plan, and exploring possible curricular enhancements with regard to climate and sustainability. The task force acknowledged that the College already has significant sustainability initiatives under way and that having a Sustainability Plan is a best practice.
How did the task force frame its sustainability conclusions?
With overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is a global threat requiring immediate response, the task force concluded that as a good global citizen, Grinnell College should take meaningful sustainability actions that directly contribute to reducing the impact of climate change.
What sustainability-related areas does the plan cover?
The plan covers seven major areas:
- Energy, emissions and travel (replace current electrical sources with renewables, build to LEED silver standards, carpooling, telecommuting)
- Water use, runoff and landscaping (landscape master plan minimize runoff, rain gardens, bioswales, rainwater usage, geothermal wherever possible)
- Food (increase local and organic, increase size of student garden, reduce food waste)
- Solid waste and recycling (compost, bins, audits)
- Behaviors (includes sub-meters, education programs, etc.)
- Communication (visibility on website, website updates)
- Curriculum (targeted projects, interdisciplinary sustainability courses)
When was the Sustainability Plan created and is it relevant now?
The Sustainability Plan was created in December 2013 and revised in July 2017. It was endorsed by President Kington in January 2018.
What will keep the Sustainability Plan moving forward?
The plan recommends forming a standing campus Sustainability Committee with faculty, staff, and student members that would make annual progress reports and bring forward new sustainability ideas for campus consideration.
What did task force members do to model individual action to address climate change?
The task force was inspired by the passion and commitment of today’s Grinnell students to address the climate change issue. As a result, the members of the task force, as individuals, created a multiyear sustainability grant program to support student academic activities such as Mentored Advanced Projects (MAPs), course-related investigations, and the like, with the hope that other donors will join and allow more student projects to be funded. This new program will be administered by the Environmental Studies program faculty to permit one or more students to pursue sustainability research each year.
Isn’t the endowment big enough that individual investment decisions don’t matter?
The College relies on endowment earnings to fund more than half of the annual operating budget. Every investment decision matters and contributes to the ability of the endowment to help sustain the mission of the College. Restructuring the investment pool for nonfiduciary reasons could seriously endanger investment returns.
Why do returns on endowment investments matter?
The College relies greatly upon endowment income to provide generous financial aid and to support overall educational excellence. Grinnell graduates have the lowest outstanding debt among graduates of all four-year, regionally accredited colleges and universities in Iowa, in large part because of the successful long-term management of the endowment.
How does the College choose portfolio investments?
Most of Grinnell's endowment assets are invested with external managers, who have been chosen following extensive reviews by the College’s internal investment staff and then approved by the board’s Investment Committee. These managers have full discretion in how their portion of the portfolio is invested. Placing restrictions on these managers would fundamentally change the terms under which they were hired.
Have the College’s endowment managers chosen to invest directly in energy-related funds?
None of Grinnell’s external investment managers focus solely on energy.
How much is invested in fossil fuel-related ventures, and what return is generated?
As of June 30, 2017, fossil fuel holdings represented 2.4% — or about $46 million — of Grinnell’s endowment. This compares to a 6% energy sector weighting in the S&P 500 and the 5–10% fossil fuel weighting that Cambridge Associates typically found in their client portfolios per a 2014 report. About half of Grinnell’s fossil fuel company holdings are in illiquid investments (effectively locked up for several years). Though the remaining funds are liquid (can be sold in public markets), they would only be sold at the discretion of the external managers who hold them in their portion of the endowment portfolio. In addition, Grinnell owns mineral rights that were gifted by the estate of alumnus Fred Darby in 1956. These mineral rights have generated cumulative net income of about $20 million since 1956 and have been generating slightly more than $1 million per year over the past 5 years.
Does the College have any investments in alternative energy companies?
The College currently has investments in clean technology and in green energy, each having been chosen based on their investment merits.
Are energy companies doing anything about alternative energy?
Many of the investments in renewable, alternative energy sources, such as wind power, are being made by energy companies. Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy is the No. 1 owner of wind-powered generation among U.S. rate-regulated energy providers. The energy that MidAmerican generated from wind equaled 47% of the energy sold to its Iowa retail customers in 2015. In addition, MidAmerican plans to invest $3.6 billion to install more wind turbines in Iowa by the end of 2019. Many oil and gas energy companies have been increasing their efforts to generate more of their supply from renewable energy sources.
Does the College have any investments in MidAmerican Energy?
Grinnell’s endowment is not invested in MidAmerican Energy. However, during the campus dialogues, the task force heard directly from Cathy Woollums, senior vice president, environmental and chief environmental counsel of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which owns MidAmerican, that MidAmerican has publicly committed to use 100% renewable energy to supply electricity to customers.
Can donors ask that endowment gifts not be invested in energy-related companies?
President Kington asked for a study of and consideration about creating a donor-requested fund that would enable future donors to have their contributions to the endowment invested in a separately managed endowment fund that would be free of all fossil-fuel investments. The task force made this part of their recommendation to the Investment Committee.
What investment-related recommendations did the task force make, and the board endorse?
The task force’s major investment recommendations, endorsed by the Board, were to:
- Maintain the current investment policy and not divest the College’s limited fossil fuels holdings.
- Charge the Investment Committee to increase shareholder engagement efforts and the application of environmental, social, and corporate governance investment factors in the management of the College’s endowment.
- Assess the feasibility of creating a separate fund for donors wishing to contribute to a fossil fuel-free fund in the endowment, as well as considering applying additional socially responsible investment criteria in creating such a fund.
Why did the task force recommend against divestment?
The task force concluded that divestment from the College’s fossil fuel holdings would be ineffective in addressing climate change and that taking actions to reduce the College’s carbon footprint would have far greater impact. The task force also concluded that divestment would very likely require the replacement of several external investment managers, introducing significant risk into the endowment portfolio and creating meaningful potential for adverse impact on investment returns. Such actions could put key programs — such as generous financial aid — at risk, would run counter to the board’s fiduciary responsibilities, and would undermine the purpose of the endowment to sustain the educational mission of the College.
What investment changes did the task force recommend?
The task force recommended that Grinnell’s Investment Committee and investment staff take actions to enhance existing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) capabilities and degree of shareholder engagement, where appropriate, and report back to the full board with a plan for accomplishing this goal. In recognition that Grinnell has a small investment team with limited resources to directly engage and that the College’s relatively small investment stake in any portfolio company may translate into limited influence, the task force further recommended that the investment team leverage alliances with like-minded investors, through organizations such as the Intentional Endowments Network (IEN) and Ceres.
Does divestment impact the policies or behavior of fossil fuel companies?
The task force concluded that fossil fuel divestment campaigns have had some success in raising public awareness. They did not find any compelling evidence that the action of divesting fossil fuel stocks has direct impact on climate change or on the policies or behavior of fossil fuel companies.
Is there anything institutional investors can do to effect change?
The task force found that investor engagement and activism has recently shown increasing effectiveness in driving actual policy and behavior changes among fossil fuel companies, presenting a more effective alternative to divestment for those who believe college endowments can play a role in positively impacting climate. Changing the behavior of fossil fuel companies also lessens investment risk.
How did board fiduciary responsibilities play into the task force’s recommendations?
Grinnell College funds a much higher percentage (more than 50%) of its operating budget with endowment distributions than its peer average (32%), making the College highly sensitive to potential adverse impacts on investment performance. The task force recognized these endowment distributions are fundamental to supporting generous financial aid to students and to enabling the excellence in education that is at the core of the College’s mission. Taking actions which could diminish these distributions would be inconsistent with the board’s fiduciary responsibilities.
Were any other investment recommendations made?
The task force recommended that the Investment Committee assess the feasibility of creating a donor-requested fund that would enable future donors to have their contributions to the endowment invested in a separately managed endowment fund that would be free of all fossil fuel investments. The task force further recommended that additional socially responsible investment criteria be considered in the creation of such a fund.