Editorial: UMass must lead on fossil fuel divestment

  • Divest UMass supporters exit Whitmore Administration Building on campus after staging a sit-in for the fifth consecutive day Friday before rallying to demand that UMass officials divest from fossil fuel companies.

Published: 4/21/2016 10:06:48 AM

The time is now for the University of Massachusetts to exercise socially responsible leadership by fully divesting from fossil fuels.

A student-led group called Divest UMass has focused attention on divestment for the past 10 days with actions on the Amherst campus, including a sit-in at the Whitmore Administration Building which resulted in 34 arrests when protesters did not leave at closing time two nights last week.

UMass Divest in March 2015 submitted a petition asking the UMass Foundation – which controls the university’s $770 million endowment – for full divestment from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies. That led the foundation to announce last December that it was ending direct investments in coal companies.

 Last week, in response to the Divest UMass demand that the trustees commit by April 13 to full divestment, the university released a statement in which President Martin T. Meehan and trustees Chairman Victor Woolridge pledged to “advocate for a policy that would see the five-campus UMass system divest and prohibit direct investment in fossil fuel companies.” Later in the week, they agreed to have the issue considered by the board of trustees at its June 15 meeting.

But leaders of Divest UMass remain frustrated at what they perceive as a lack of urgency by university decision-makers. “If our leaders don’t understand the urgency with which they need to act, students and the UMass community are going to continue to pressure the administration until they choose to stand with us on the side of climate justice. It is not acceptable to push off this action any longer. The time to divest is now,” said UMass sophomore Mica Reel, a spokeswoman for the group.

On Tuesday, Divest UMass organizers called on Meehan to publicly declare his commitment to full divestment when he is on the Amherst campus Thursday. Meehan last week was quoted in a statement issued by UMass as saying: “Throughout my career, I have stood for environmental progress and reducing the carbon footprint. … I embrace and I believe that the University leadership broadly shares the goals that the divest-campaign students have been advocating for.” 

Meehan should have no reluctance then about standing with leaders of Divest UMass on campus Thursday to  specify how he plans to advocate for full divestment – most importantly with the UMass Foundation, the private, nonprofit corporation which ultimately is charged with making the decision. Meehan is one of its 25 directors.   

When the UMass Foundation announced in December its divestment from coal companies, it promised to continue evaluating how to manage the endowment in ways that promote environmental sustainability and socially responsible investing. The foundation should, as Meehan has said, now take the “logical next step” by joining the handful of colleges and universities across the country which have fully divested. To be sure, the practical impact of divestment by UMass will be negligible because it has less than $5 million invested in fossil fuels, or about six-tenths of 1 percent of its total endowment, according to Woolridge.

Still, what at first may be a symbolic gesture will add momentum to the growing pressure on the energy industry to seek alternatives slowing the impact of fossil fuels on climate change. Bill McKibben, a leading environmental activist, said in response to Divest UMass: “I doubt it will have a major financial impact, and I believe it will have a serious impact on (the fuel industry’s) social licensure. Every time a trusted part of our community — and UMass is certainly an important part of the Bay State — severs ties with this industry, it isolates it that much more, and reduces its ability to exercise its political power.” 

We commend the student activists leading Divest UMass for their persistence – and responsible use of civil disobedience — in focusing attention on the climate crisis and calling for the university to respond. We urge President Meehan to stand with them this week and pledge his leadership in securing full divestment before school resumes in September.

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