Students to ask Board of Trustees to divest

Posted on February 24, 2014 in News
By Sidney Dritz

Money won’t be the only topic of conversation that’s green at the upcoming University of Maine System’s Investment Committee meeting of the UMS Board of Trustees this Friday.

For the second February in a row, the question of financial divestment of fossil fuels is on the agenda for the BoT meeting. This time, a group of students from USM and the University of Maine at Orono have been given a half hour time slot to make a presentation to the Investment Committee at the Friday meeting, which will take place in Bangor, but will be videocast to the Portland Campus.

The minutes for the Board of Trustees meeting of Feb. 27, 2013, when the issue of divestment from fossil fuels was first discussed before the board exactly one year ago, noted, “Student groups nationally are bringing awareness regarding fossil fuels and related environmental concerns and encouraging divestment of related investments.”
At the time, the USM branch of Divest UMaine, a series of student groups arguing in favor of divestment throughout the UMS, was only two months old. “We weren’t there,” said Divest UMaine member and junior math and computer science major Shaun Carland. “It was something that they [the board] noticed people talking about.”
“They talked about it, but there was no further conversation after last February,” said Meaghan LaSala, a junior women and gender studies major and Divest UMaine member, who will be among the student presenters at the upcoming meeting.

The minutes from the 2013 meeting outlined the limited number of UMS funds already unconnected to fossil fuels, and concluded with the words, “The Committee acknowledged the importance of the issue and discussed in detail the above noted investment constraint.”

“We’re going to be bringing many reports to the table showing that fossil fuel divestment has negligible [financial] risk,” LaSala said. The reports she referred to include a letter published in the Huffington Post to the president of Harvard from the mayor of Seattle stressing the financial upsides to divestment, as well as studies on the environmental concerns associated with investment in fossil fuels, and a list of the companies that are the most culpable.

LaSala noted that Unity College and the College of the Atlantic have both divested already, and that Unity College’s endowment, rather than being compromised, has grown in the year and a half since divestment.

In a letter to members of the UMS community earlier this month, UMS Chancellor James Page said that a recent review of UMS investment portfolios revealed that divestment from fossil fuels at this time would limit investment opportunities and require wholesale changes to the portfolios. While the UMS has a responsibility to reduce its carbon footprint, Page said, citing examples of measures taken to do so system wide, it also has a responsibility to protect and wisely invest the funds in its charge.
“I welcome student, faculty and community engagement as to how we become better stewards of the environment. Further conversations are not only welcome, but crucial,” Page wrote.

“I just hope that the investment committee will recognize that divestment is the right thing to do,” said LaSala.

LaSala said that divestment, rather than compromising the university system, might actually help it. “This has the opportunity to make the University of Maine System a leader globally,” she said. If the University of Maine System voted to divest, it would be the first public university system in the nation to do so.
Iris SanGiovanni, a freshman political science major and Divest UMaine member, elaborated, “It’s really attractive to potential students to show that their school cares about what’s right.”

The UMS has a history with divestment as well, SanGiovanni said. “What’s really exciting and gives us a lot of energy is that in the ‘80s, UMaine was one of the first universities to divest from the apartheid in South Africa.”

Universities across the state have made moves toward divestment over the past few years, from the interest of environmental groups at the University of Maine at Orono, Farmington and USM to a proposal to divest at Bates College recently, which was not passed.

SanGiovanni, along with LaSala, was involved in the protest outside a Portland branch of TD Bank in January to protest the bank’s investment in the Keystone XL Pipeline and has worked with the group Save South Portland that works against the addition of a pipeline from Montreal to the South Portland waterfront landscape.
“It’s good to do something where you feel like it’s something that can really make a difference,” SanGiovanni said.

Despite some concerns, SanGiovanni is hopeful that the presentation to the board will yield results. “I think it’s hard for the Board of Trustees to look past the fact that we’re just students,” said SanGiovanni, but she also cited support from USM’s student body and from President Kalikow as reasons for her optimism.
The student body support she referred to was a referendum question in support of divestment that passed by a 10:2 margin in the 2013 USM student elections. The support from Kalikow has been present since the issue of divestment was raised by the board at this time last year and is evidenced by her intention to attend the presentation to the board and speak in support of divestment.

“I encourage the Investment Committee to consider this issue seriously — because climate change is a risk that we must respond to, and because when students get this organized, it is our job to listen to them,” Kalikow wrote in a statement to the Free Press last Friday.
“I don’t want to be too hopeful, but I really am,” SanGiovanni said.

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