Letter to the editor: An open letter to John D. Simon, future president of Lehigh University

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Dear Mr. Simon,

I am a Lehigh alumnus and former Fulbright Scholar in the political science department. I am writing this letter because I want to be proud that I graduated from an institution that is committed to safeguarding students’ futures against irreversible environmental damage. So far, Lehigh University is not playing that role. But, with your new leadership, that can change.

Mr. Simon, please take this letter as a genuine concern from an alumnus who wants to see a safe future for this generation of students and for the next generation that hasn’t been born yet and therefore does not have a say in the type of natural environment we are leaving them. Mr. Simon, as the future leader of an institution of more than 7,000 students, you will not only have the authority to suggest and foster institutional change in how Lehigh is investing its endowment, you will also have a moral imperative to do so. It is neither ethical nor coherent that Lehigh is endangering the future of the same students that it is educating by investing millions of dollars in the dirtiest form of energy in the world: fossil fuels.

The former university administration repeatedly stated that the construction of the STEPS building, the adoption of the Climate Commitment in 2009 and the creation of the Campus Sustainability Plan in 2012 were the strategic guidelines to fostering environmental sustainability across the Lehigh community. As these advancements are worthy, they remain almost meaningless when we take into account the amount of CO2 produced by the $80 million that Lehigh invests directly in the fossil fuel industry.

Last March, former President Gast and the Lehigh Chief Investment Officer met with me and other students to discuss divesting from fossil fuels. It was very disappointing to find out that Lehigh investments are not evaluated by any sort of moral filter. Indeed, the investment officer clarified that the purpose of having an endowment is to grow it, “not investing with moral screens of any type, whether that’s alcohol, guns manufacturers, or tobacco.”

In this meeting, President Gast stated that she did not conceive of Lehigh’s investments as a political or moral tool. Though, by the simple fact of investing 7 percent of Lehigh’s $1.2 billion endowment in the fossil fuel industry (information given by the Lehigh Chief Investment Officer) our university is politically supporting and endorsing dirty energy. And not only that, Lehigh is making money out of destroying the environment — Lehigh students’ environment. It is shortsighted to think that investments are just “business transactions” when some companies are actually spending those monies to run coal plants, to bribe governments into allowing lax regulation on extractive industries, or even to finance the campaigns of congressmenwho fully support the antiquated fossil fuel industry. Other schools – “aspirational schools” – are doing much better than us when it comes to taking socially responsible steps toward divestment. For example, last year Donald P. Gould — a trustee and chair of the investment committee at Pitzer College and president of Gould Asset Management— stated that “The real hypocrisy is saying that you support a world largely free of fossil-fuel emissions, while at the same time betting on their producers to continue delivering a steady profit stream to your endowment” (chronicle.com, 2014, http://chronicle.com/article/Why-We-Said-Goodbyeto/147929/).

From a financial point of view, divesting $80 million from fossil fuels may not generate an immediate impact in this industry, but this symbolic step will certainly provide some substance to the Campus Sustainability Plan, and to what the Office of Sustainability is able to achieve. Further, divestment will send a powerful message to students, parents, alumni, the Lehigh Valley community, and even other universities about our strong and coherent commitment to fostering an environmentally sustainable society. Ultimately, divesting the 7 percent of Lehigh endowment from fossil fuels and then reinvesting it in renewables is not a financial challenge at all, and will not put our university in a financial crisis. This change is technically and financially feasible.

Neither is divestment an empirical challenge, but a political one. 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening, that CO2 is one of the greatest contributors to the greenhouse effect and that fossil fuel industries are the main source of that greenhouse gases. Therefore, may I ask why our forward-thinking, globally prestigious and environmentally minded university is still investing millions of dollars in fossil fuels?

Yes, I am aware that making as much as we can from the endowment is crucial for supporting research, fellowships, scholarships and a number of important projects at Lehigh. Yes, I am aware that fossil fuels are still a very profitable industry to invest in. But I am also aware that universities should not be money-making machines. On the contrary, higher education institutions have a moral responsibility to lead social change in the world. Beyond that, divesting from fossil fuels is a matter of survival. Our lives, and Lehigh students’ lives, depend on how well this generation preserves the environment.

Former Lehigh President Alice Gast sits on Chevron’s Board of Directors, which may have influenced the university’s unwillingness to divest from fossil fuels. I hope you will be accountable only to the Lehigh community and not to corporate interests.

This summer, you have the opportunity to celebrate Lehigh’s 150th anniversary, announcing a new era of institutional coherence and commitment to sustainable development. Alongside my support, you can also count on the support of campus offices and associations that hope for a sustainable planet, and on the support of all students who want to live in a safer and healthier environment.

Wish you the best.

Sincerely,

Gerardo Calderón
M.A. in Political Science

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1 Comment

  1. What I would like to know is how John D. Simon is going to strive to make Lehigh more affordable for the middle class. With studen loan debt at an all time high, how is he going to bring costs down and maintain great education. Why has Lehigh not confronted this huge issue yet?

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