Special Campus Memo: Fossil Fuels and Climate Impact Task Force Report

Dear Grinnellians:

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 last several years, there has been considerable debate on campus about divestment from fossil fuels as a tactic to address climate change. Student activism on this matter culminated in the occupation of the President's Office in February 2017 by about 150 students, 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. The goal was to thoroughly explore these important topics in a serious and open way, and to make recommendations at the Board's spring 2018 meeting.

We strongly agree with the Fossil Fuels and Climate Impact Task Force's recommendations outlined below, and believe they provide clear direction for Grinnell College to take meaningful actions to address this critical issue. We commend the task force members for fulfilling their charge in an unbiased, intellectually rigorous, transparent, and inclusive manner.

The task force's major recommendations 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 comprised of students, faculty, and staff that would make annual progress reports,
  • maintain the current investment policy and not divest the College's limited fossil fuel holdings,
  • charge the Investment Committee to increase shareholder engagement action and the application of environmental and social criteria 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.

The full task force report goes into detail about the rationale for each recommendation. Some top-level insights the task force provided for its findings:

  • individual and institutional sustainability actions could significantly reduce carbon footprint impact and enhance sustainability in a more direct way,
  • investor engagement and activism have had increasing success in driving actual 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,
  • there is no compelling evidence that divesting has direct impact on climate change, or the policies or behavior of fossil fuel companies,
  • divestment from the College's limited number of fossil fuel holdings would introduce significant risk into the portfolio and create meaningful potential for adverse impact on investment returns,
  • such actions would run counter to the Board's fiduciary responsibilities and undermine the purpose of the endowment to sustain the educational mission of the College.

The task force's full report is available on the task force website. Also, at 4 p.m. today (Saturday, April 28), task force members will convene a campus forum meeting in the JRC Laurel Leaf Lounge to discuss their work and recommendations.

Following extensive discussion about the process and conclusions, trustees strongly affirmed the task force's work and voted to endorse its recommendations. The trustees noted that implementation of the recommendations will require commitment, comprehensive action, and adaptability from Grinnell leaders and campus community members.

We extend our own appreciation to the task force members: trustees Michael Kahn '74 (chair), Kathryn Mohrman '67, and Edward Senn '79. They devoted countless hours to this work and modeled what it means to be Grinnellian by their willingness to explore these issues with a deep sense of purpose.

Special note should be made of an extraordinary personal undertaking by the three task force members: Inspired by the passion and commitment of today's students to address climate change, they created a grant program to support academic sustainability activities and initiatives. This new program will permit one or more students to pursue sustainability research each year. Michael, Kathryn, and Edward have expressed their hope other donors will join them in supporting funding for more student projects.

We also are grateful to the advisory committee members who assisted the task force: 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. They were actively engaged throughout this process and instrumental in identifying expert resources and organizing campus dialogues. They helped model evidence-based inquiry and civil discourse.

Together, the task force and advisory committee, aided by each of you who engaged in their work, made this process a learning experience for our College community. We extend our sincere thanks to all Grinnellians for helping navigate this complex issue and contribute with great responsibility.

We have tremendous respect for the task force process and its recommendations to help guide our future efforts. We think everyone can agree we need to address climate change, and we strongly believe we have settled on those actions that will be most effective in doing so. For the sake of our world and future generations, now is the time to commit ourselves -- individually and as an institution -- to enhancing all of our sustainability efforts and impact.


Patricia Jipp Finkelman '80
Chair, Grinnell College Board of Trustees

Raynard S. Kington

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