LTE: Divestment, Disillusionment, and Disrespect: our experience with David Solomon
by Three Hamilton College Seniors, LETTER TO THE EDITOR 5/4
On March 3, we attended the Senior Networking with Trustees event in the hope of speaking with trustees about divestment and other important campus issues. As students involved in climate justice and sustainability efforts on campus, we took this rare face-to-face opportunity to ask the trustees questions about the College’s stance on divestment.
We were able to speak with David Solomon ’84, the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Hamilton College and the CEO of Goldman Sachs. We first asked him about the College’s endowment in an attempt to seek more clarification on the information found on the Endowment page of Hamilton’s website, which currently reads: “As of year end 2021, the endowment has less than two percent direct exposure to fossil fuels… The remaining direct fossil fuel exposure in the endowment today resides in legacy private investments made prior to 2009 that will liquidate over time.”
We assumed Solomon would likely shut us down, but he seemed excited about the question, and actually brought up the term divestment himself. However, he very quickly gave the impression that he felt this was a good time to impart his insights to us. The conversation quickly devolved into nearly 30 minutes of talking about climate change and the College’s role in climate adaptation and mitigation. Throughout the discussion, Sol- omon’s attitude and behavior toward us and our questions carried extremely racist and sexist undertones. His blatant ignorance and disrespect is one we feel obligated to share with the campus community.
Solomon was unaware that the Hamilton website says only two percent of the endowment is directly exposed to fossil fuels, stating it was likely higher. He also claimed he did not know what we were talking about in reference to “legacy private investments.” Solomon then indicated that he thought fos- sil fuel divestment was a stupid movement. He called us hypocritical for advocating for divestment when we still use electricity and drive cars — and said that if we traveled to countries like China, India, and Cambodia we would see how the world “really works,” and then see if we want to live like that. He often contradicted himself, saying with similarly charged undertones, the “West” is the center of technology and innovation, and it is our responsibility to pull the “East” into a climate transition, yet also saying it is not the College’s job to participate in this transition. The student and faculty body of Hamilton have been advocating for divestment since at least 2013, to no avail. Solomon’s views on divestment reflect this institutional stubbornness to understand the College as a necessary leader of reasonable climate action and mitigation amidst such a dire crisis.
At one point, he laughed and told us he’d be dead in thirty years, so climate change would be our problem anyway. Yet, later in the conversation, he asserted his optimism for the future of society and our planet. His willful ignorance continued, with seemingly no intention to actually learn or genuinely engage with us beyond belittling us. When we brought up the topic of climate justice and he didn’t know what it was, we patiently explained it to him. Yet, as the conversation continued, Solomon still claimed that he had no idea what climate justice is. He lacked any regard for some of the most integral concepts our Hamilton education has taught us– intersectionality and justice– as anyone who has fulfilled the Social, Structural, and Institutional Hierarchies (SSIH) requirement should be able to tell you.
When discussing the College’s role in just climate change action, we went into the purpose and role of the college’s endowment. We insisted that since Hamilton is supposed to be run for the benefit of the students, fi- nancially fueling the climate crisis through our endowment is antithetical to our mission. Solomon then said probably the most clear- ly racially-charged sentiment — he pointed at each one of us, claiming that all of us must be on financial aid; he implied that we should show immense gratitude because we are in debt to the college’s endowment and that we should not complain about its investment portfolio. Once we all looked shocked at the claim, he quickly backtracked, citing the statistic that something like 80% of Hamilton students are on some kind of financial aid. It is important to note that the group of six or so people talking to him were all non-male, and at least half were people of color. We believe that he never would have assumed we were all on financial aid if we were the group of white male students in suits talking to him twenty minutes prior.
Solomon spoke to us in a patronizing and disrespectful manner. Despite knowing nothing about us and our roles in our communities and history of activist work, Solomon claimed he does more in a week to help climate change than we will ever do in our entire lives. When we asked him to elaborate, he attributed his “capital accumulation” and position of power. Solomon’s “capital accumulation” and position of power has certainly helped him in other ways– in November of 2022, Goldman Sachs paid $12 million to a former female partner, settling claims of gen- der-based discrimination and sexist hostility in the workplace. The partner named Solomon specifically as one of the executives who made the workplace hostile to women, citing a lewd sexual comment he made. In June, a lawsuit against Goldman Sachs will likely go to trial over accusations of widespread gender-based discrimination in pay and promotion.
Finally, we felt that one simple yet incredibly harmful statement he made aptly reflects his stance on our efforts combating climate change: “that’s a nice thought, but that’s not how the world works.” We are ashamed, embarrassed, and scared that David Solomon is the face and voice of Hamilton College through his position as the Chair of the Board. Solomon’s opinions are not just words — his sentiments hold real weight and power. His words do so much damage to the members of our campus community advocating for and most affected by climate change.
As seniors, we are leaving Hamilton College, a place we have loved and cherished, feeling disillusioned. Solomon’s term as a Charter Trustee expires in 2024, and we strongly urge the Hamilton community to take action to prevent his further tenure on the Board not only for his lackluster stance on divestment or his apathy towards the student body and our future, but his ignorance and weaponization of capital and power that leaves those he talks to feeling powerless. Hamilton deserves better.
– Three members of the Class of 2023