Energy2028: Middlebury commits to divestment plan

(Middlebury College)

Middlebury College is going 100% fossil fuel free by 2028.

The bold plan, announced in late January by college president Laurie L. Patton, was met with resounding student and faculty support. The plan, called Energy2028, details the school’s sustainable energy vision that’s aimed at both reducing Middlebury’s carbon footprint and its environmental impact.

Energy2028 includes commitments for Middlebury to use 100% renewable energy resources, reduce overall energy consumption by 25%, and cease 100% of all direct fossil fuel investments within the next 10 years.

“This plan is true to Middlebury’s culture and values,” President Patton said in a statement. “It is bold and aspirational while remaining realistic and highly practical. It acknowledges that we do not have all the solutions at our disposal at this moment to meet these goals, but it commits us to make every effort to do so.”

The backstory

The Middlebury Board of Trustees unanimously voted to divest, and indicates the institution’s commitment to a better, more sustainable future. But Energy2028 was not born overnight. This decision, a key component of the new four-part plan, was the result of a six-year effort led by student activists.

Middlebury, which created the country’s first undergraduate environmental studies program in 1965, has long been heralded as a beacon for environmental studies and action. However, Middlebury has not always shown its commitment to the environment.

In 2012, a small group of Middlebury students developed a plan for the school to divest from all fossil fuel companies in its endowment portfolio. The students presented this plan to the Middlebury administration where they were met with a resounding “no.” To divest from fossil fuel companies was a dangerous economic move, and simply too bold at the time.

Students led the charge

While met with negativity, student involvement — and hope — in divestment never wavered. As the original students graduated, new ones had to take the helm and continue to promote divestment and pressure the administration to act against climate change.

Student turnover created a slow moving campaign toward divestment from fossil fuels, but eager students accepted the challenge. After about three generations of students carried out the work of those before them, progress started to be made.

Alice Butler and Leif Taranta, two of the student organizers of the current divestment campaign, picked up where students left off a few years ago. “Most of the members on the board did not see the vision we had,” Butler said. “Through most of the campaign process, we felt that a lot of the administration did not really take us seriously.”

A small group of students regularly held protests and sit-ins to demonstrate their displeasure with Middlebury’s investment in fossil fuels, but never quite created enough noise to really push the administration. At times when momentum slowed, however, the campaign aimed to gain broader student support for divestment.

In a student government referendum last spring, more than 80% of the Middlebury student body voted in support of divestment, transforming a casual student group into a movement with serious implications and support. An identical faculty referendum was held this fall, yielding similar results to the student positions.

The results were clear: The Middlebury community was calling for divestment.

A smart change in tactics

Over the course of about three semesters, the divestment campaign grew quickly. Across campus, students pinned small orange patches to their coats and backpacks showing their support for the movement. Group discussions, protests and sit-ins grew, increasing the pressure on the administration to divest. And student organizers began making ethics, justice, and economic arguments for divestment.

“So often we were told we didn’t know what we were talking about and to stay in our lane,” Taranta said, as a smile grew on his face. “But then we started attending town hall discussions and asking questions that faculty and board members couldn’t answer.”

Shifting from a protest-based approach to one focused on research and intellectual pressure was a critical turn in the divestment campaign.

“The administration felt the pressure,” Butler said. “They saw how seriously students were taking the movement, and it would bad on their part to not listen to what the majority of students see as a brighter future.”

Once the campaign combined evidence-based research with student support, change started to occur. As student arguments grew stronger, administrators began to change their minds.

Caroline McBride and Ted Truscott, two members of Middlebury’s Board of Trustees, completely changed their position on the topic, while David Provost, the Executive Vice President of Finance, acted as a liaison between President Patton and the students.

Pressure builds

In an already vulnerable position, the administration then began to feel pressure from other student campaigns, including those calling for a carbon tax, dining hall meat reduction, and emissions reduction.

“The whole of our environmental arguments was better than the parts, and it became clear to the administration that students care for the environment,” Butler said. The administration caught on, and before long, students and faculty began working together to find an appropriate climate action plan for the school. Energy2028 was born.

The announcement of Energy2028 is a win for the students, the school, and our planet. Paired with Middlebury’s carbon neutrality announcement in 2017, the school proves it is invested in the future of its students and the planet. Middlebury is a beacon of hope today when scientific predictions are indicating a bleak future for the planet.

When asked what's next for the divestment campaign, Butler and Taranta laughed.

“You should see how many schools have reached out to us about their own divestment strategies,” Taranta said. “A lot of students are committed to holding their schools accountable for a better future.”

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