VIDEO: UMass Foundation divests from fossil fuels

Board action follows April student protests

  • UMass students, from left, Ashley Casello of Billerica, Emily Conn of Madison, Wis., Shristi Pant of Norwood, and Samaya Abdus-Salaam of Bronx, N.Y., join a large group of Divest UMass supporters April 14 outside the Whitmore Administration Building in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Divest UMass supporters rally outside of the Whitmore Administration Building on campus April 14 to demand that UMass officials divest from the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies.

  • UMass freshman Muhammad Munir of South Deerfield joins a large group of Divest UMass supporters in rallying April 14 outside of the Whitmore Administration Building on campus to demand that UMass officials commit to divest from the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Divest UMass supporters rally outside of the Whitmore Administration Building on campus April 14 to demand that UMass officials divest from the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies. From left are UMass students Hayley Benoit, 22, Hannah Youssef, 20, Hannah Heiser, 22, and Devon King, 20.

Published: 5/25/2016 2:07:10 PM

BOSTON — The University of Massachusetts Foundation board of directors voted unanimously Wednesday to end the university’s direct investments in fossil fuel companies, according to UMass officials.

The decision makes UMass one of the first public universities in the country to divest from fossil fuels.

The action comes about a month after the end of a two-week protest at UMass Amherst led by the student group Divest UMass. The group initially demanded that the university pull all its investments in fossil fuel companies but compromised with university President Martin T. Meehan, who said he would advocate for the divestment of direct investments.

“This action is consistent with the principles that have guided our university since its Land Grant inception and reflects our commitment to take on the environmental challenges that confront us all,” Meehan said in a statement released Wednesday.

“Important societal change often begins on college campuses and it often begins with students. I’m proud of the students and the entire university community for putting UMass at the forefront of a vital movement, one that has been important to me throughout my professional life.”

At its height, the Divest UMass protest drew 250 people to a sit-in at the UMass Amherst Whitmore Administration Building and led to 34 arrests on April 12 and 13.

Meehan met with Divest UMass organizers, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy and other university administrators during a visit to the UMass Amherst campus April 21 to hammer out a compromise with the student group as the academic year came to a close.

Meehan agreed to advocate for an end to direct investments at the June 15 board of trustees meeting and bring the issue to a vote. The president said he would recommend UMass take the “Syracuse approach,” referring to the university that pulled its direct investments from fossil fuel companies in April 2015 and reinvested in clean energy technology.

The vote to divest from fossil fuels follows a December 2015 decision to divest from the coal industry.

Divest UMass spokeswoman Mica Reel said Wednesday that the divestment news came earlier than expected, and the group is “so excited” to hear the university’s decision.

“This is really amazing to see,” Reel said. “This is a wonderful thing to share with the people that were at the sit-ins and the protest … It shows the power of students. We built a community around this issue.”

Reel said although the campaign originally pushed for full divestment, supporters are “celebrating” the compromise and will continue to talk about divesting commingled funds in the future.

“It doesn’t end here,” Reel said.

Small financial impact

The financial impact of divestment from fossil fuel companies will be small, as the university has less than 1 percent of its $770 million endowment, or $5 million, invested in the industry. But supporters said in April they hope the action will send a message about climate change.

Bill McKibben, well-known author and environmental activist, said the news is a “key reminder to financial institutions about the direction the world is headed.”

“I think it’s the best news I’ve heard in an age! It’s the result of great organizing by students and faculty across the Bay State — and coming as it does in the hottest year ever recorded it’s a great morale boost to the climate movement,” McKibben wrote in an email Wednesday afternoon.

Subbaswamy agreed that the university decision is a “powerful statement.”

“The foundation’s action today makes a powerful statement about UMass’s commitment to combating climate change and protecting our environment,” Subbaswamy said in a statement Wednesday. “It also speaks volumes about our students’ passionate commitment to social justice and the environment. It is largely due to their advocacy that this important issue has received the attention that it deserves.”

The authority to divest rests with the foundation, and the board of trustees is expected to endorse the decision at its June 15 meeting.

To keep his promise to Divest UMass and follow the Syracuse-inspired model, university officials say Meehan will earmark funds dedicated to green technology and clean energy in June. Officals say Meehan plans to use the President’s Science and Technology Initiative Fund to ensure further funding for sustainable technology projects. In 2015, the fund provided more than $900,000 in grants to UMass faculty researchers.

UMass plans to boost its academic and financial involvement in offshore wind energy, including a partnership with New Bedford-based developer Offshore Wind: Massachusetts.

The UMass Foundation is a Massachusetts Chapter 180 not-for-profit corporation founded in 1950 to promote the growth of the university, according to officials. The foundation is a depository for charitable contributions to the university. It manages the $770 million endowment, promotes private support and supports fundraising efforts of the five UMass campuses.

The foundation is led by a board of directors consisting of 15 public directors and 12 university-affiliated directors who serve in leadership positions in the university system. Meehan is one of several ex-officio directors.

Twelve members of the foundation’s board of directors serve on an investment committee that sets guidelines for the university’s endowment. Meehan, Treasurer Christine Wilda and volunteer alumni serve on the committee.

The Socially Responsible Investing Advisory Committee was established by the foundation in 2014 to evaluate and consider social investment proposals put forth by university community members. The eight-member committee, composed of faculty, administrators, alumni and students, serves as a forum where social investment issues can be raised, discussed and reviewed. The committee is responsible for making recommendations to the UMass Foundation board of directors.


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