The Brown Corporation just voted to not divest from coal — here’s a response from Brown Divest Coal and the Go Fossil Free campaign: 

October 27, 2013

Brown Votes “No” on Fossil Fuel Divestment

Providence, RI — Defying the will of its student body and its own investment advisory committee, the Brown University Corporation decided earlier today to not divest from the 15 largest U.S. coal companies and join the broader fossil fuel divestment campaign. [1]

“I’m deeply disappointed in our administration,” said Brown student Ruby Goldberg ‘17. “The board acted explicitly in opposition to the voices of Brown’s community, and of the endowment oversight committee. This could have been a moment for Brown to step up as a leader in the fight against climate change. Instead, the Administration chose to continue supporting an industry that profits from wreaking havoc on frontline communities and destroying our chance for a sustainable future.”

“Students at Brown have worked as hard or harder than any others in the country and more to the point, they’ve done absolutely everything by the book,” said Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and founder of, an international climate campaign helping coordinate the divestment campaign. “They deserved to win this fight and in the long run they will win this fight, because it’s their future at stake, not the future of a handful of rich people on the Brown board.”

McKibben is currently in Berlin, Germany, for the first stop of a speaking tour designed to launch the fossil free divestment campaign in Europe. [2]

Brown’s decision came just days after the Foothill-De Anza Community College foundation in California committed to divestment, the 40th institution or local government in the country, including the Providence, RI city council, to make a divestment commitment. Over the last year, the Fossil Free divestment campaign has spread to over 400 colleges, universities, and cities across the country. [3]

The Board’s vote came after a year of active campaigning from the Brown Divest Coal student campaign. Since the fall, students have held rallies, phone-­banked, hosted teach­-ins, met with administrators, and gathered over 3600 petition signatures from students, alumni, faculty and staff in support of divestment.

“To me this vote shows that Brown doesn’t take its commitments to social justice and combating climate change seriously,” said Divest Coal member Kari Malkki ’16. “What’s the point of teaching about climate science or environmental racism if we won’t act on that knowledge? Today our administration was too timid to challenge the status quo, but we’re going to keep pushing them to stand for what is right. Until then, our ‘Boldly Brown’ motto sounds laughable.”

Brown University President Christina H. Paxson announced the Corporation’s decision in an open letter posted on the university’s website. While she acknowledged the threat posed by climate change and the environmental damage caused by the coal industry, she offered two faulty arguments to why the University would not divest.

First, President Paxson argued that while coal posed certain environmental risks, it did not cause enough social harm to warrant divestment. This conclusion is directly contradicted by numerous studies that highlight the enormous social cost of coal consumption. The 2010 “Hidden Cost of Energy” study from the National Academy of Sciences estimated that the damage from coal fired power plant emission in 2005 cost the nation about $62 billion and that costs would only increase. [4] A 2011 Harvard University study calculated that coal costs U.S. one-third to over one-half a trillion dollars annually. [5] Coal is also one of the main drivers of climate change, which if left unaddressed could cut off up to 20% of global GDP according to the 2006 Stern Review. [6]

The University’s own Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility and Investment Policy recently encouraged the Board to divest from the coal industry, writing, « The companies recommended for divestment perpetrate grave, indeed egregious, social harm, and there is no possible way to square our profiting from such harm with the values and principles of the University. »

Second, President Paxson argued that divestment was an ineffective tool to changing the behavior of the fossil fuel industry and addressing the climate crisis, a claim that both academic studies, and historical experience, refute. A recent study by the University of Oxford concluded that the current fossil fuel divestment campaign is growing faster than any previous divestment campaign and could cause significant damage to coal, oil and gas companies. [7] The campaign also has the blessing of a leader of the anti-apartheid divestment movement, Nobel-Peace prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote, “Divestment played a key role in helping liberate South Africa. The corporations understood money even when they weren’t swayed by morality. Climate change is a deeply moral issue, too. »

President Paxson refused to address student concerns that the Brown Corporation’s decision may have been swayed by a number of its board members who have major holdings in the coal industry. In an oped published in the Brown Daily Herald, members of the Brown Divest Coal Campaign identified several board members with significant holdings in the coal industry, including Brian Moynihan ’81 P’14, president and CEO of Bank of America, which as of Aug. 14 has $1 billion worth of holdings in 14 of the 15 companies in question. [8]

“The voting process at Brown echos the coal industry’s stranglehold on our nation’s governing bodies. Once again, a corrupt process lead to a dangerous outcome,” said Ian Georgianna ’15, a member of Brown Divest Coal. “Unless we confront this system, we won’t be able to make meaningful progress to address climate change.”

Precedent suggests that the campaign at Brown is likely to not only continue, but escalate due to the President and Corporation’s initial refusal to divest. The first student sit-in for divestment in the country took place last year, just down the road from Brown at the Rhode Island School of Design, an event that was documented by Ira Glass on This American Life. [9] Last weekend, at US Power Shift, a gathering of over 6,000 youth climate activists, many of the panels and discussions focused on how to intensify efforts on campus after receiving an initial refusal. [10]


1. Brown announcement:

2. Fossil Free Europe tour:

3. List of institutions committed to divestment:

4. National Academy of Science’s study:

5. Harvard University study:

6. Stern Review:

7. Oxford University study on divestment:

8. Brown oped, republished in the Nation:

9. This American Life on divestment:

10. US Power Shift: