Interview with College President Dr. Stephen Mulkey

portrait of Stephen Mulkey. Photo by Unity College
photo by Unity College

“Institutions of higher education should have been leading the way and they haven't. They've been complacent, and they've been mired in the status quo. And yet, there's incredible opportunity in this crisis.”

Dr. Stephen Mulkey is a climate scientist and the president of Unity College in Unity, ME. Last November, he proposed to the school's board of trustees that they divest their endowment from fossil fuels. After a lively discussion, the board voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.

Header photo by Unity College.

Green America/Martha van Gelder: Why do you believe that universities need to take action on climate change?

Dr. Stephen Mulkey: I absolutely think that universities and colleges across the board have a special responsibility to take action. Our charge is to renew civilization. That being the case, it is ethically inconsistent to invest in its destruction.

My own personal perspective is very simple: This generation of college students is facing an incredible series of sustainability challenges that will force them to live on a very different planet from the one that I grew up on. Unavoidably, the warming and the climate change that's in the pipeline will create a dangerously disruptive climate for the second half of their lives, and increasingly so.

The real question in play right now is whether my grandchildren and their children will have a civilization. Because warming of 6°C or even 4°C is not consistent with civilization as it's currently configured.

Green America/Martha: Your school has moved in incredibly quickly to divest from fossil fuels. How have you been able to do that?

Mulkey: Well, that is just who we are. We looked at our portfolio and said, “This is the right thing to do.” This was an ethical decision on the part of the board. Like any good board of trustees, they insisted that we dig into the details to find out just what the financial implications of this were. And the answers in our case, and I think the answers with any institution, are favorable.

There are a number of considerations from a strictly financial perspective. Number one is, “Are you likely to harm long-term investment by taking the 200 industries that are directly involved in fossil fuels out of your portfolio?” There's a rich body of literature in the investment research area that asks the question, "Does social screening hurt your portfolio in terms of return?" And the answer is, not necessarily. We don't just simply drop out the fossil fuel companies. What you do is strategically replace them with other investments.

We are very comfortable with this approach. The one objection that's frequently raised is that someone will say, "Wait, you know that fossil fuels are going to be worth a whole lot at some point. They are really going to become lucrative." And our response to that is, “So what if they’re lucrative? We don't buy tobacco stock.”

Having a mission to renew civilization while at the same time investing in its destruction is ethically incompatible. I don't think that that's an option for an institution of higher learning.

Green America/Martha: I've heard the argument from university administrations that an endowment only exists to fund the university and shouldn't be swayed by whatever social or environmental issue is important to the students. Is there any specific response you'd have to that argument?

Mulkey: It's reprehensible, period. And the reason that I would use such a strong word is that it goes beyond the particular desires of students. I guess I agree with the statement in the sense that whatever issue students may have as their agenda du jour should not drive the colleges’ investment policies, per se. But this has to do with the survival of civilization and the viability of their future. So, while in general we can't make our investment policies responsive to the agenda of the students, on this issue, to not do so is indefensible.

Green America/Martha: Why do you think other universities have been so resistant to fossil-fuel divestment?

Mulkey: I think there’s a number of things going on. Number one, they may have been influenced by the heavily funded denial industry whose entire purpose is to insinuate doubt. So, they feel less of a sense of urgency than we do.

Number two, making this change goes against the inertia of the system. The inertia is to keep the investments managed the way they have been, and it's painful to make that kind of change. You have to challenge a lot of peoples’ assumptions, and you have to have somebody who has the courage to lead it. That's hard to do.

Number three, right now the ground is shifting under colleges and universities in a massive way. There is a whole suite of new constraints that are coming to bear, and at the same time we have disruptive innovations in higher education. University administration and boards are panicking. They're looking at new ways of configuring their operations to save money, and for the first time since the 1950s, the students are not lining up at the door. These are issues affecting many institutions, the elites excepted. There are issues related to maintaining enrollment, to the financial viability of the institution. So, with that kind of foment shaking the foundations of higher education, it's hard to take on this kind of issue right now.

I would submit, however, that I actually believe that the solution to both is doing the right thing in respect to the environment and climate change. There is no higher value proposition for higher education then giving the students the tools to deal with sustainability challenges. So if you have the courage to put your institution on a firm foundation of financial sustainability and academically sustainable education, you will stand out, and students will come to your doors. I absolutely am certain that there is a whole generation of students in high school that are coming out of the chute right now looking for alternatives [to a destructive economy]. And those institutions that are offering alternatives will find that their financial issues will be significantly assuaged, if not abolished.

Green America/Martha: How do you want to equip your students at Unity for their life after graduation?

Mulkey: If you are a student in college today, and you're not an activist, I wonder what's wrong with you. Frankly, how can you be complacent in the face of the challenges your generation is facing? If you think that you can sit comfortably through your four years of undergraduate education and [global warming] will somehow be solved, you are wrong.

We encourage our students to be activists; we want them out and engaged in the political process. We want them talking to their legislators; we want them debating what is the right way forward.

Friends don't let friends deny climate change. You get in their face about it, and you say that that's absolutely not true, it is real, and it is incredibly dangerous. And so I encourage all the students to carry the message home to the parents and their family and to be a guiding light.

The truth is, institutions of higher education should have been leading the way and they haven't. They've been complacent, and they've been mired in the status quo. And yet, there's incredible opportunity in this crisis. The opportunity is so rich.

I don't know if you've ever had a course in evolution, but there’s a term called an “adaptive zone.” The invention of wings in birds and the convergent evolution in the wings of insects represented an adaptive  zone, meaning that there are now multiple new niches that these winged organisms can then occupy. Think about all the different kinds of birds there are, and all that became possible because of the natural selection for organisms that could fly. So that's the concept of an adaptive zone.

If you look at our economy, it has been entirely built on the diversification of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have provided us plastics, they've provided us integrated circuits, they've given us the ability to span the globe in our travel. Well, that represents  all of those niches in an adaptive zone based on the fossil fuel industry.

If we now turn our attention full-bore to building a civilization and an economy based built on non-fossil-fuel energy sources, you will see a whole new adaptive suite of economic opportunities. There will be a new adaptive zone. We don't have to worry about the viability of our economy. I think there will be an incredible opportunity to restructure our economy with all of these new set of ways to make a living that have nothing to do with burning carbon for energy. So I see a clean economy, a green economy as a new adaptive zone for the economy that will result in its diversification.

There are plenty of pieces of evidence to point to this. If you go to the McKinsey and Company studies, and you see the different tools that they recommend for the mitigation of climate change, every one of those represents a new niche in the economy. If you go to the recent study at the Brookings Institute that was published

in 2011, you see that during the recession, the overall economy faltered, and employment dropped significantly and very painfully. But the green economy within and without the public-sector jobs, or with and without tax payers' support, actually continued to grow. I think that that is indicative of the fact that there are new niches and new opportunities that are just waiting to be taken advantage of.

Green America/Martha: Anything else you’d like to add?

Mulkey: One final thing is that I am very frustrated with the scientific and academic community at large. They're quiet, they're sitting in their labs, and they're doing their fieldwork, and they're training their graduate students for business-as-usual when they’re the ones who really know what's happening here and what the challenges are.

I think that it's reprehensible and inexcusable for them not to use tenure for the reason that it was invented: to protect us when we speak out. I was silenced and dismissed by a select committee of legislators while giving an invited talk about climate and energy. A conservative legislator called me a liar and demanded that I be dismissed, and I was. But I had tenure at the time, and that's what tenure is for, to allow me to be that kind of activist and to make statements based on my work as a climate scientist, and to stand by it and not be intimidated and not lose my job. I am extremely frustrated with the academic community for being quiet in the face of this crisis.

Green America/Martha: What do you think it will take for the academic community to start taking real action around climate?

Mulkey: I do think that if the students will speak with one voice, ultimately they hold the key to the future of higher education. They don't know it; they often think that they are powerless. But I am sitting in the president's chair, and I happen to know where the power is, and it's with the students and their parents. And the students in particular… if they will speak with one voice, they will be heard.

From Green American Magazine Issue