Some Steps Forward on Climate Action, More Needed
The 116-day sit-in by members of Fossil Free MIT Coalition (FFMIT), directed against the MIT administration’s climate action and investment policies, ended on March 1 with issuance of a joint statement. We applaud the persistence and civility of the protestors and the willingness of the administration to engage with them. The administration did not agree to the FFMIT call to divest the endowment of stocks in the coal and tar sands industries. However, four areas of agreement were reached: “Moving toward campus carbon neutrality as soon as possible; establishing a climate action advisory committee to consult on the implementation of the Plan for Action; developing a set of strategies and benchmarks for MIT’s engagement with industry, government, and other institutions; and convening a forum on the ethics of the climate issue.” (David Chandler, MIT News, March 3, 2016).
In the September/October issue the Faculty Newsletter published an open letter to President Reif from 83 faculty calling for divestment from coal and tar sands investments. The November/December issue carried a letter from 93 faculty raising issues with MIT’s Plan for Action on Climate Change. In the current issue, the climate change discussion continues. Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, who has played a leading role in the administration’s team on the MIT Climate Change conversation, describes MIT’s continuing efforts. Her support for proposals to establish benchmarks for the effectiveness of efforts toward sustainability is welcome.
We also print a letter from members of the Climate Change Conversation Committee identifying areas that still need attention. One of these is the issue of decisions on the investments held by the MIT endowment. During the Faculty Forum on the matter, a number of faculty called on the administration to adopt the unanimous recommendation of its own Climate Change Conversation Committee to establish an ethics advisory committee to advise MIT on its investment decisions for its portfolio. The response was that such a committee was unnecessary and that the MIT Investment Management Corporation (MITIMCo), which manages the endowment, had its own ethics advisory committee and didn’t need additional input. In the last issue of the Faculty Newsletter, Prof. Sally Haslanger expressed concerns that the administration’s response to addressing ethical and humanitarian concerns was inadequate.
We share this concern. Over the past half dozen years, the Faculty Newsletter has carried a series of articles that indicate that the MITIMCo mission of maximizing return on investment was often counter to MIT’s interest in providing the best in education and research. Thus we continue to oppose the MITIMCo plan that uses the East Campus of MIT to develop commercial office buildings, while leaving graduate students to fend for themselves in an increasing restrictive off-campus rental market (see article by Fred Salvucci [January/February 2015] and more recently Bob Simha’s critique of the East Campus plans in the last issue).
MIT’s students, staff, and faculty deserve a public and legitimate Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investments that is responsive to and representative of campus concerns. American colleges and universities that have established campus-based committees on socially responsible investing include Brandeis, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Princeton, Stanford, Penn, and Yale (www.endowmentethics.org/committees_resources). The authority of the committees varies, but establishing such a committee would be a major step forward from a private committee at MITIMCo. Hopefully, the MIT committee to be established under the agreement that ended the sit-in will come to a similar conclusion.
Cambridge City Council Calls for Divestment from Nuclear Weapons Industries
We note that the Cambridge City Council has unanimously passed a Policy Order calling on the City’s pension fund to divest from stocks in corporations tied to the manufacture or upgrade of nuclear weapons. This was publicly announced at MIT at the Conference on “Reducing the Danger of Nuclear War,” described by Prof. Max Tegmark in the article on page 1. That effort was a U.S. offshoot of the European-based Don’t Bank on the Bomb Campaign, which also calls for the establishment of Committees on Socially Responsible Investments, in all institutions that make decisions on financial investments.
Governance and the Climate Change Debate
Inside this issue, Prof. Patrick Winston continues the discussion of MIT Governance from the Editorial and the From the Faculty Chair column of the last issue. A fulcrum of that debate has been whether small, essentially appointed committees can deal with questions that have broad impact on faculty and students. The “Shared Statement on Climate Action” says that Prof. Zuber will convene a forum to explore ethical dimensions of the climate issue. Typically, such forums lead to a further committee that has some power to recommend action. Many faculty and students will be paying close attention to the efficacy of such efforts to make progress on the questions raised.