Steve Kaagan '65 returns honorary degree

Why I Have Returned my Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters to the Williams College President and Trustees

Stephen S. Kaagan, Williams College B.A. 1965, Harvard University, Ed.D. 1973


On Friday, October 23rd I walked into the Office of the President of Williams College and returned the honorary doctorate of humane letters I had been awarded 30 years ago for leadership provided the Vermont Schools.  The position of the President and Trustees on climate change, issued last month, showed such striking lack of leadership that there seemed no palatable alternative.

Williams College holds a special place in my heart and I am grateful for all it provided me. It is with a heavy heart, therefore, that I return a treasured token of my membership in the Williams Community.  By financing companies that systematically undermine credible science and democratic decision-making, by shirking expected leadership responsibilities in the face of clear dangers to the planet and its inhabitants, and by teaching that modest, inward-looking measures are sufficient, the President and Trustees have violated their stewardship responsibilities, and betrayed my trust.

To avert climate disaster the world must reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.  This will require a dramatic move away from our collective combustion of fossil fuels. There is no silver bullet for achieving this goal.  It will require Herculean effort on the part of all nations and institutions. We demand this effort especially from nations and institutions of great wealth and support solutions being framed by communities at the frontlines of climate change.  Insular steps are important for modeling but insignificant in terms of the scale of action required. Rather, every conceivable form of influence and pressure has to be brought to bear on fossil fuel companies and governments to "leave it in the ground".

With fellow alumni, faculty and students I have worked for two years to press for divestment - respectfully, through formal procedures.  Divestment by leading institutions stigmatizes fossil fuel companies and creates public pressure for legislators to support positive energy policy. Yet our proposal was distorted and ultimately dismissed outright, even as there were intermediate progressive measures that could have been adopted.

Trust in the leadership of an educational institution derives almost exclusively from the fulfillment of its educational mission.  By failing to divest its endowment of fossil fuels, or taking any other action that reaches beyond its borders, Williams has undermined its mission.  No one has described this more eloquently than Jeremy Leggett who returned his philosophy and earth sciences doctorate to Oxford University, "It doesn't make sense to train young people to nurture civilization with one hand while bankrolling the sabotage of it with the other."

Climate change uniquely demands of those who govern institutions that they transcend their normal role and act in the interests of global and planetary welfare.  The time is past for the business as usual growth strategy the College is pursuing.  Increased carbon reduction goals and diversionary giving programs will barely offset the harmful environmental effects of planned capital construction, funded through an ambitious capital campaign. The "big thing" the Trustees promised last spring to address climate change turns out to be little more than a nudge to the status quo.

Williams College is no longer an institution worthy of its elite status. It is not the institution that granted me an honorary degree. By returning my degree, I commit myself fully to the movement for serious climate action. In the words of a wise Williams student, "we will not rest until we divest."  Trustees for their part, on the eve of the Paris talks, would do well to ask themselves what side of history they want to be on.  

Student letter of support

Letter from Wendell Berry

By returning his honorary degree to Williams College, Steve Kaagan has given us a bold example of aligning one's actions with one's values. I hope administrators at Williams will learn from it, and follow Steve's lead in walking the walk in addressing climate change by divesting from fossil fuels. --Jenny Marienau, US Divestment Campaign Manager,

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