An Open Letter to the President Of Brown University: I Know Why You Won't Say No to Big Coal


President Paxson,

I should start this letter with a confession: I haven’t really been that into the Divest Coal campaign. At first it seemed like too much of a long-shot to work, and even if it did, it was a nuanced topic that I didn’t feel like taking the time to understand. Then, once it gained more steam, I dismissed it as the latest flavor-of-the-month cause. It was easier that way.

Then I saw your email explaining why Brown University would not, after all the petitioning and demonstrating and against the advice of the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policy, be divesting from coal companies. Now, I find myself interested. So thank you for that, I guess.

I can’t speak for the Brown community, nor would I claim to. The Brown Daily Herald and the Brown Noser (with some Onion-worthy satire) have provided ample coverage of the issue, so all I can do is tell you what the decision has meant to me.

In that wall of text I received in my email inbox the other day, you mentioned a lot of things. A lot of reasons behind the decision, a lot of very patient explanations that grown-up issues are complicated, and a lot of acknowledgments of how much you appreciate students’ input. What I find really interesting, though, is what you didn’t mention. For example, you didn’t mention billionaire Steve Cohen and his holdings in coal companies like Walter Energy Inc., which would be directly affected by divestment. Funny thing is, he’s a member of The Corporation of Brown University, which has the final say in decisions like these. Funnier still, his hedge fund, SAC Capital, is currently under investigation for insider trading and may end up paying unprecedented fines to the United States government as part of a plea deal.

Investigations aside, though, might Corporation members like Steve Cohen and Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, who have huge financial stakes in coal, have affected the outcome of this debate?

Brown’s failure to divest from coal is disappointing. What is just as disappointing, though, is that apparently you didn’t feel you could be honest with your student body. Tell us that we’re all going to be gone in four years anyway, and therefore shouldn’t have any say in long-term decisions the university makes. Tell us demonstrations and social action are great, but money wins out in the end because your chief responsibility is to be a financial steward for what is, at its core, a private corporation. Tell us it doesn’t matter what your ethics are as long as the checks keep coming in. You’re an economist by profession — we get it. Or we would get it, if only you’d be straight with us.

Because really, what’s the message here? Maybe it’s that students are, at the end of the day, another column on a university’s balance sheet and not much else. Maybe it’s that grassroots social action is great as long as you’re not asking anyone in a position of authority to do anything that isn’t easy and profitable.

I understand your letter was an attempt to be diplomatic and use intellectual argumentation to further an unpopular point. But, as an undergrad, let me tell you that when you don’t believe in what you’re writing, you can dress it up all you want, but it’ll come through. Be honest with us, President Paxson. We deserve that much.

Oh, and if the financial bottom line really is the bottom line at Brown, at least make sure the ceilings in the dorms don’t fall on students