Williams Alum Returns Honorary Degree In Protest Of College's Climate Plan

Oct 23, 2015

A Williams College alum returned an honorary degree he received from the private university in protest of the school’s climate action plan.

Surrounded by roughly 25 students, Steve Kaagan handed the honorary degree his alma mater granted him back to Williams College President Adam Falk Friday morning.

“What Williams did was really just to act within its own province,” Kaagan said. “The provinciality of that decision is most unfortunate, most unfortunate for the college and it will hurt the brand of the college. I’m sorry about that and it is disappointing.”

Kaagan graduated from Williams in 1965 and went on to serve as Vermont’s Education Commissioner, a career for which he was recognized with the honorary degree in 1984.

“Steve, I’ll say, very sad that you feel it’s necessary to do this,” Falk said. “I appreciate the very respectful in which everyone is engaging in this conversation. I respectfully disagree with a lot of what you said.”

President Falk ruefully accepted the degree and statements of support for Kaagan’s action by the students of Divest Williams and the U.S. divestment campaign manager of the international environmental group 350.org. The move is in response to Williams’ plans to limit its carbon footprint and invest in renewable energy resources and education in an effort to battle climate change.

September’s announcement came after a multi-year student, alumni, staff and faculty effort urging the school to completely divest its $2.3 billion endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. Falk says there is agreement that climate change is the biggest global issue, but a divide on what form the college’s leadership role should be.

“As an institution of higher education the most important things we do are the things we do on our campus,” Falk said. “The education we provide. The way we use energy on our campus. The things we do on our campus all have education value and the most important thing we do is graduate students who are going to go out and change the world.”

Williams says it will invest up to $50 million over the next five years in efficient buildings, renewable energy projects and climate change education, aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of 2020.

“It really sends the dangerous message that we can buy our way out of a climate crisis,” said Williams sophomore Erica Chang, a member of Divest Williams. “We’ve been focusing on on-campus efforts, but we are a college of extraordinary wealth, influence and impact. I think it’s the responsibility and moral obligation of this college to use that on impact on a more meaningful scale.”

As of July, Williams had no direct holdings of shares in any of those 200 companies, according to the college. As of 2014, the school invests $8.3 million in fossil fuel related companies through fund managers. Having reviewed the possibility of divestment after the action group made its proposal in December 2014, Falk says the board of trustees doesn’t consider it to be an open question.

“If we don’t start by asking ourselves as Americans and as American institutions how we can use less, I think everything else we do is hollow,” Falk said. “To put a renewed focus on that question on this campus to me is the most important moral step we can take. To me it’s a more significant moral statement than a statement about which stocks we happen to own in which companies.” 

Chang says the college has not been transparent enough in its decision-making. In its April 2015 report on the proposal, the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility listed the news and scientific articles it referenced. In his letter to school leadership, Kaagan writes that “Williams College is no longer an institution worthy of its elite status.”

“They not only dismissed our proposal outright, they distorted it,” Kaagan said. “We had asked for a progressive set of measures that would take us toward divestment and they turned that into a proposal for a one year divestment which was absurd.”