Q&A with the Fossil Fuels and Climate Impact Task Force

Michael Kahn ’74

In the spring of 2017, Patricia Jipp Finkelman ’80, chair of the Grinnell College Board of Trustees, appointed a Fossil Fuels and Climate Impact Task Force to explore related issues including possible fossil fuel divestment in an unbiased, intellectually rigorous, transparent, and inclusive manner. The task force consists of three trustees: Michael Kahn ’74 (task force chair), Kathryn Jagow Mohrman ’67, and Edward Senn ’79

Below is a Q&A with Kahn about the task force’s role on these issues.

Q. Why was this task force formed? (What impact did student protests and arguments have on its formation?) 

A. Student activism and engagement certainly helped shine a brighter light on the topic of divestment, and board chair Finkelman and President [Raynard S.] Kington both agreed a dedicated task force was warranted to address this complex issue.

Q. To support the task force’s work, President Kington appointed an advisory committee of faculty, staff, students, and alumni, chaired by Wayne Moyer, professor of political science. They identified resources for the task force to consider, including experts who participated in campus dialogues during the fall. What was your impression of those resources? 

A. The expert speakers and other resources identified by both the task force and advisory committee have been really excellent. We all learned a great deal from this process. 

Q. During the fall semester, three series of “dialogues” were held on campus and 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. What did you learn that was most surprising or useful as you think about these issues? 

A. We’ve learned a great deal over the 15 on-campus sessions. It was helpful to learn just how much Grinnell is already doing with regard to sustainability plans and surprising to learn that several recognized leaders in responsible investing favor investor engagement over divestment. 

Q. What was your impression of the participation by the campus community in the dialogues? 

A. The members of the advisory committee were actively engaged in each campus session, but broader turnout was otherwise pretty limited. Since the issues are more complex than many might realize, we hope those who are interested will go to the task force website, grinnell.edu/about/trustees/fossil-fuels-task-force, to view some of the sessions. Everything the task force members are seeing and considering is available for all to see.

Q. At the spring 2018 board meeting, the task force will present its recommendations. How will the task force decide what to recommend? 

A. We will spend the next several months combing through all of the information we have received plus any other research or information the advisory committee provides for our review. We have been meeting weekly for many months already, and I believe we have a strong foundation for working through decisions on divestment and other actions the College could take to positively address climate change. We are all confident that this process will produce a number of impactful recommendations. 

Q. Final thoughts? 

A. We believe our process has been as important as the serious questions we are seeking to address. This has been a completely open, inclusive, and transparent process. The voices and views of students, faculty, alumni, and staff have all played a major role, not just the voices of outside experts. Though our work isn’t done, I think all of us who have worked on this are proud of how we have gone about it. 

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