In 1985, the Mount Holyoke College Board of Trustees voted to divest Mount Holyoke’s endowment from South African stock in order to protest apartheid. The Board of Trustees made their decision after years of relentless organizing by students, including former President Lynn Pasquerella, class of 1980. By deciding to divest, the Board of Trustees agreed with students that investments are political acts with real consequences. It set an influential precedent by publicly acknowledging the ethics bound in our endowment. The act of divesting intrinsically politicized the College’s endowment and its investments.
On April 6, 2015, five members of the Climate Justice Coalition (CJC) – Daphne Chang ‘16, Kayla Smith ‘16, Julia Worcester ‘17, Raven Geiger ‘17, and Shannon Paton ‘18 – met with President Pasquerella, members of the Investment Committee, and representatives from Cambridge Associates, an external group that manages the College’s endowment. The purpose of this meeting was to learn more about the significance of the endowment and the College’s investments in relation to the financial health of the institution.
At this meeting, members of the Investment Committee – including Committee Chair Elizabeth A. Palmer ‘76 – told us that Mount Holyoke College reinvested our endowment in South African apartheid in 1991. We were told that on September 16, 1991 the Investment Committee sent a memo to the Board and Finance Committee outlining the financial damage that divestment from apartheid had done to the College’s endowment. According to the College’s investors who compared Mount Holyoke’s endowment with a hypothetical portfolio including stocks in South Africa, the endowment reportedly lost $5.4 million in “opportunity cost” throughout the period of divestment. To our knowledge, the Board made the choice to reinvest without consulting or informing the many factions of the Mount Holyoke community who fought for divestment in the first place. Ultimately, the decision occurred after a period of six years – after the student activists who fought for divestment graduated. As of 1991, the violently racist South African apartheid regime was still in power, so a reinvestment decision reflects a support of these racist beliefs by the Board of Trustees.*
In their presentation at our meeting, the members of the Investment Committee referenced reinvestment in apartheid in order to demonstrate to us the financial risks of divestment in general and in regards to current discussions on fossil fuel divestment. According to Kayla Smith ‘16, who was in attendance, “not only was it revealed that Mount Holyoke’s endowment was reinvested in the apartheid regime after their much-celebrated divestment, but that the Board members spoke as though they regretted divesting in the first place by citing the amount of money lost.”
The presenter did not seem to understand that reinvestment, if it did in fact occur, was not simply a financial decision – it was also a political and moral one.
“Now that the issue of divestment has been raised, there is no choice that can be made that is not political. To divest means that the College will make a political decision to oppose publicly the economic decisions it regards as destructive. To not divest means that the College will make a political decision that economic returns are more important that opposing those destructive activities… The question for the College is which decision is most consistent with its mission and values,” to quote Professor of International Politics, Emeritus Vinnie Ferraro in a statement he wrote exploring the parallels between Mount Holyoke’s apartheid and fossil fuel divestment campaigns.
CJC members have since attempted to confirm whether Mount Holyoke College actually reinvested its endowment in companies supporting South African apartheid. Unfortunately, our members have been unable to access the Board’s official meeting records that would confirm what we were told during the April 2015 meeting. The Board of Trustees has an obligation to all students to come forward with clarification and an explanation.
The entire Mount Holyoke community was reminded of the Board’s lack of direct transparency last March 7th, 2016, when we were notified of a $2,560 tuition increase through only two sentences buried in the sixteenth line of a fifty-nine line, eleven paragraph email. As long as the Board continues to prevent the students, faculty, and alumnae of the College from accessing financial decisions in a timely and accessible manner, there will not be sufficient accountability, transparency, and assurance that the Board won’t make unethical financial choices in the future.
“Fiduciary responsibility does not preclude ethical choices.” Professor Ferraro shares our sentiment in this statement. The moral implications of apartheid reinvestment are unconscionable. Choosing to remain invested in the industry that is primarily responsible for potentially catastrophic climate change—which disproportionately impacts women, children, and minorities—aligns ourselves with fossil fuels and is reprehensible. Mount Holyoke needs to refrain from repeating its collapse of conviction by acknowledging the global impact of our investments and realigning them to fit the College’s mission.
Regardless of the Investment Committee’s prioritization of profit over morals, our investments remain political. The flows of capital overlay and constitute violent systems of power. Now is the time for Mount Holyoke College to be the “changemakers” we claim to be, to make another moral decision, and to proudly stand on the right side of history without wavering. In the case of climate change, the consequences are dire, complex, and difficult to overcome. When the Board of Trustees votes to divest from fossil fuels, our community must keep the College accountable to ensure that reinvestment does not reoccur.
*The original published version of this article did not include explicit commentary on the violently racist practices of the apartheid regime. We have edited the piece to more accurately reflect our moral stance. For more information on South African apartheid, visit: x and x (warning: potentially graphic and disturbing descriptions and images of anti-black violence).