Coal Divestment Debate

March 13th, 2014

In the debate regarding socially responsible investing, an important principle, symmetry, seems to have been ignored or at least not reported (“No to Coal Divestment,” Elms, January/February).

If a corporation’s shares are deemed tainted and therefore unworthy of being held in Brown’s endowment, e.g. tobacco, then logically the University must eschew all dealings with the company. No donations, including matching gifts, could be retained; no recruiting on campus would be allowed; no faculty member could accept a consulting assignment or research grant. Failure to apply an ethical principle consistently is the height of hypocrisy and indeed is morally reprehensible.

If the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility on Investment Policies decides that Brown cannot own shares of a given company or set of them, it must then ensure that all links are severed and accept all the consequences. Principles, if they are to have any validity and value, must be observed scrupulously, even if doing so involves a sacrifice.

On a related point, the position attributed to President Paxson that, because coal-heavy investments represent just 0.1 percent of Brown’s portfolio divesting from coal companies would not influence their behavior, is jejune and disingenuous. What would her threshold be: one percent? 3.1416 percent? I personally believe the decision to retain ownership is correct but not because of some arbitrary criterion of immateriality.

Richard Karl Goeltz ’64
New York City


I think the Corporation missed the mark with its decision not to divest from coal. Saying that coal investments represent less than 0.1 percent of the portfolio and that therefore the impact on coal companies would be negligible is not sufficient reason for maintaining the status quo; nor is pointing out that coal powers 40 percent of the world.  If anything, these are reasons to divest, not to stand pat! While President Paxson may be frustrated by those who see the decision as an endorsement of coal, that is exactly what it is.  

David Prescott ’64
Santa Fe, N.M.

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Related Issue
March/April 2014