Perlmutter Signals Renewed Trustee Discussion of Divestment

The Chairman of the Board of Trustees said sustainability and divestment will be discussed at upcoming Feb. 8 board meeting

For over a decade, students have called for Reed College to divest from the fossil fuel industry and have been met with the Board of Trustees and administration’s rebuttal that Reed College’s investing policy must remain politically neutral. The past several months, however, have been marked with changing attitudes towards divestment, as the Trustees announced that they would discuss climate change and divestment at their upcoming Feb. 8 meeting, alongside the Feb. 6 Reed Union centered around climate change. 

With colleges across the nation from Harvard to Scripps to Georgetown to Lewis and Clark all pushing for divestment and climate change action, the Reed Union and the Trustee Visit come at a crucial point in Reed’s history. 

The Board of Trustees’ upcoming spring meeting was precipitated by a letter distributed to the student body within President Audrey Bilger’s end-of-semester message. In this letter,  which was sent out on Dec. 16, 2019, Roger M. Perlmutter ’73, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, addressed Reed Student Senators “to provide an update on the deliberations” of the board, concerning the college’s “approach to sustainability.” The letter repeated much of what has been heard by the student body before: that Reed College’s “main contribution to healing the world will be, and has always been, the education of students,” and that the Trustees’ primary function is fiduciary, to maintain the financial well-being of Reed College. Roger Perlmutter, however, stated in his letter that “the way in which we invest our endowment may more broadly send a signal that diminishes our credibility with respect to energy conservation,” signalling to the Reed community a significant shift in the Board’s attitude towards investment practices. 

Hayden Hendersen, Reed’s Student Sustainability Coordinator, figures that “the composition of the board has changed, and more and more trustees may be on board with the theoretical idea of divestment.” With the changing board, Hendersen proposes the possible solution of reinvesting in environmental, social and corporate governance criteria (ESG) funds. By reinvesting in ESG funds, Reed College would be able to sustainably invest in a way that would both generate profit for the college and reflect the college’s values. Socially responsible investing would already adhere to Reed’s Investment Responsibility Policy (IRP), adopted in 1978, that states that the college should act “where the issue at hand is of a compelling social or moral character and where the action taken reflects widely-held, perhaps almost universally-held social or moral positions.” 

The Board of Trustees, however, has maintained their belief in the importance of political neutrality, as the IRP directly states that “the College’s financial objective is done not to displace the significance of moral, social and political issues in share of ownership, but rather to emphasize that share of ownership does not constitute College approval of all of the policies of any complex share-held corporation… To own is not necessarily entirely to endorse.” To this, Hayden Hendersen says, “Bullshit… Investing is not politically neutral, and all their actions and lack of actions are political.”

Perlmutter told the Quest that the Trustees hope to gain “perspectives from members of the Reed community” at the Reed Union. Perlmutter repeatedly emphasized that the Trustees’ main goal is to aid in the mission of the school, “supporting intellectual inquiry” and “educational opportunities for our students.” When asked about greater financial transparency concerning Board decisions, he responded that the “decisions of the board relate to capital projects, the fundraising campaigns necessary to support these projects, and the recruitment of the president of the college. These decisions typically reflect broad community involvement,” and did not elaborate further. 

President Bilger, when asked about transparency, stated that “the Board is responsible for overseeing the health of the College, and in that sense, I do think that for the Board’s work to be clear in that regard, that the Board is here to support the College, that is important.”

The Reed Union is “a really special thing that we do as a community,” Bilger explained. She continued that “for me–and I think this is true for members of the Board as well–hearing what comes out of this is going to be really important. We’re in listening mode.”

Hendersen’s aim, along with others pushing for divestment, is clear: “The message sent by colleges divesting, the press it gets, the minds it changes about the dramatic urgency of the problem… that is the real impact of divestment.”


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