Amherst College students seek divestment

Staff Writer
Published: 4/30/2016 3:11:02 AM

AMHERST – Daylong sit-ins by University of Massachusetts students and rallies on campus have prompted President Martin T. Meehan to endorse votes by the board of trustees and the UMass Foundation in June to end investments in the fossil fuel industry.

At Hampshire College, a 2014 vote by its board of trustees approved a sustainable investment policy that screens out fossil fuel holdings.

But eliminating oil and gas stocks from the investment portfolio has not yet happened at Amherst College, prompting students involved in the Divest Amherst group to call on Amherst Town Meeting to put pressure on the school’s board of trustees to make changes in this practice.

At the Wednesday session of Town Meeting, members are expected to be asked to endorse a resolution so “that the college will join the institutions that have already divested and leverage its national reputation to promote divestment.”

Divest Amherst member Kelly Missett, a first-year student at the college, said Friday that she is hoping the town’s influence will accomplish what students have been unable to do on their own.

“Working from the inside hasn’t been effective,” Missett said.

In February 2015, trustees released a statement on sustainability, reading, in part: “In terms of fossil fuels, the trade-off is not limited to endowment investments. It is a trade-off that each person makes every day, and therefore understands. At Amherst, those who agree fervently on an ultimate goal—reducing greenhouse emissions—will have different opinions about whether divestment from all fossil fuels would have any impact in the market or carry much symbolic weight. They will have different opinions about whether, or when, endowments should be used for purposes beyond financial stewardship.”

Missett said this seems to state that the investment policies have minimal impact on climate change, a view that she argues was affirmed in September by a letter to the campus from President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin. 

But Missett said student referenda have shown large support for divestment, including an April 3 vote in which 73 percent supported pushing the college to divest from fossil fuels. This followed a 2013 student referendum in which they voted overwhelmingly in favor of divesting from coal.

The student divestment movement began in fall 2012, and since then has including a week of action a year ago, teach-ins, protests, and tablings, and a rally last fall following a visit by author and social activist Naomi Klein.

Carley Tsiames, a sophomore at the college, told the Select Board at its April 19 meeting that a Town Meeting vote matters.

“We argue that Amherst town and Amherst College share mutual interest in the school’s divestment,” Tsiames said.

Should it persuade the college trustees to change its investment strategy, this could be meaningful on a national level, she said.

“Amherst College’s influence and reputation will galvanize other universities to divest as well, producing a domino effect, sending a powerful financial message that fossil fuel investment must stop,” Tsiames said.

Missett said such action is not unusual, observing that Town Meeting in November 2013 voted to recommended that both the town and the Hampshire County Retirement Board pursue divestment from fossil fuels.

“If they did it for those entities they could do it for us,” Missett said.

If adopted, Missett said Divest Amherst students will spend the final weeks of the spring semester continuing to push for divestment.

Though the Select Board has no position on the article, board member James Wald said he is skeptical that Town Meeting action would have anything more than a “modest shaming effect” on the college.

“I think also, not to disappoint the petitioners, Amherst College is not going to care what Town Meeting says. Amherst College doesn’t care what anybody says,” Wald said. “Basically boards of trustees operate according to their own rules of governance and fiduciary responsibility.” 

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

 




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