At its last meeting, the Student Senate approved a resolution to express the student body’s desire to divest the University of Maine System endowment from any of the top two hundred publicly traded fossil fuel companies. The proposal called for an immediate stoppage to new investments in fossil fuel companies as well as a complete divestment within five years.
The resolution, sponsored by Senator Ciarra Pickens, is part of an ongoing campaign by student leaders and activists to pressure the UMS Board of Trustees to make a formal policy change. “This is part of a national movement to get trustees of major universities to quit investing in destructive businesses,” said Student Body President Adam Higgins.
Higgins sees an opportunity for Maine schools to lead the fossil fuel divestment charge, as both Unity College and the College of the Atlantic have already divested.
Currently, UMS investments in fossil fuels total approximately $7.5 million, which represents about 6.2 percent of the total $121 million endowment. Because the fossil fuel investments are co-mingled within larger investment instruments and the endowment is for all seven schools in the system, divestment is not a simple matter. Nor is it cost effective, according to the UMS fund managers’ divest report.
Divestment at USM, however, has a strong supporter in President Theo Kalikow. “This is not just another social issue. We have endorsed the climate commit policy … but, it’s not enough,” Kalikow said at the UMS Investments and Fossil Fuel Discussion, which brought together key staff members and investment consultants to begin the discussion of alternative investment options.
“This vote will help send the right message to the board of trustees,” said Pickens. Even with the groundswell of support building for the resolution over the last few weeks, the senate debate held at Glickman was not without dissenting opinions. Senator Tyler Boothby and Senator Kyle Frazier both voted against the measure. Senator Mike Scherumley voiced concerns that the divestment movement was too extreme because of its connection with Bill McKibben’s 350.org.
In attendance was Shaun Carland, a junior mathematics major, president of Students for Environmental Awareness and key contributor in the preparation of the resolution. “It is important to lead and use our voices, this sends a clear message, not only to everyone at USM, but to all the other students in the system. We do have power,” he said.
A turning point in the debate came when Chris Wagner, a junior communications major and member of USM’s Wounded Warriors and Friends student group for veterans, voiced support for the resolution, comparing it to the divestment campaign aimed at abolishing apartheid in South Africa, when mounting economic pressure forced political and social changes.
The senate moved quickly to take a vote on the resolution, which passed by a 10-2 vote amidst cheers from student supporters.
“I was expecting a bit more of a fight, but I went into it knowing that, win or lose, the conversation was beneficial,” said Chriss Sutherland, co-author of the resolution. Members of USM’s SEAS view this as a stepping stone for other branches of the UMS to follow their example. “Movements are already underway in Farmington and Orono, but Fort Kent and Machias might be more challenging,” said Sutherland.
Even supporters, such as Isaac Misiuk, a sophomore political science major and president of the USM College Republicans, still have some reservations. “It’s a complex issue,” Misiuk said. “I support the idea, but with the budget cuts and lack of contract for the union, performance funding is really important to the health of the UMS.”
The board of trustees Investment Committee discussed fossil fuel divestment at its Feb. 27 meeting. While the committee acknowledged the importance of the issue, it concluded that the investment space for funds that have already divested is not very developed and that the performance of such funds is not consistent. The committee, however, stated that it will consider other investment opportunities in the future.