Meehan pledges divestment votes in June

  • Two students hold a banner outside Memorial Hall at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Thursday, where UMass President Martin Meehan was meeting with organizers from Divest UMass, who have been calling on the university to stop investing in fossil fuels. STEPHANIE MURRAY

For the Gazette
Published: 4/21/2016 11:57:51 PM


AMHERST — University of Massachusetts President Martin T. Meehan agreed Thursday to stand by protesters who are demanding the university commit to divesting from fossil fuel companies, pledging votes by the board of trustees June 15 and the UMass Foundation no later than June 22.

If both groups approve, UMass would be the first public university in the country to fully divest from fossil fuel companies, according to university spokesman Robert Connolly.

“This is a symbolic gesture, but it is also a serious statement from the university concerning climate issues,” Connolly said Thursday.

Meehan’s pledge comes after nearly two weeks of protests by the student-run group Divest UMass that began April 11. After a sit-in on the third floor of the Whitmore Administration Building that drew over 200 people at its height, and 34 arrests April 12 and 13, Meehan agreed to meet with Divest UMass organizers in person Thursday.

At the meeting, Meehan explained that putting the issue of divestment on the agenda for the June 15 meeting means it will be brought to a vote. The UMass Foundation controls the university’s $770 million endowment.

Meehan met with Divest UMass student organizers Sarah Jacqz and Kristie Herman for an hour in Memorial Hall. Also present where UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy, Vice Chancellor John Kennedy, Vice Chancellor Enku Gelaye, and Connolly.

According to Herman, Meehan promised to advocate for divestment and speak with “key players” who will vote on the issue.

“Meehan is publicly backing divestment,” said Herman. “We’re holding his word in good faith.”

According to Connolly, Meehan will use what he calls the “Syracuse approach,” taking cues from the university that divested from fossil fuel companies in April 2015. That means Meehan will not only advocate for UMass to pull its direct investments in fossil fuel companies, but he will “urge the foundation to reinvest in clean energy technology,” Connolly explained.

“Even though it seemed like students versus administration … we were happy we could agree on this step and move forward,” Connolly said.

Connolly called the decision a “second step,” after the university divested from coal companies last year.

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

“There was a lot of common ground between the Divest leaders, the president, and the chancellor,” said Connolly. “We hope we can bring about change.”

Final rally

Thursday marked the final Divest UMass rally of the spring semester. Roughly 100 people rallied at 6:15 p.m. on the lawn outside Whitmore, singing and celebrating what they say is a victory.

Divest UMass asked Meehan to come to the rally to publicly announce his support, but Meehan was already committed to speak on a panel organized by the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, according to Connolly.

For the most part, protesters were unfazed by the president’s absence. The few “boos” in the crowd were silenced by Jacqz, who said the president was with them in spirit by promising to advocate for divestment.

“We have a lot to celebrate, and we don’t need President Meehan here to celebrate that,” Jacqz said.

Protesters, some holding cardboard signs painted orange and black, chanted and gave high-fives between speeches made by students and faculty using a megaphone. Some were barefoot and many wore pieces of orange felt pinned to their clothing in support.

Moving forward, Herman said there is more work to be done. Divest UMass plans to stay in touch with Meehan via email between now and June 15. According to Herman, a group from Divest UMass will go to the meeting in Worcester June 15 to hear the decision and “hold the administration accountable.”

She said the fight against climate change is far from over, and future protests regarding private prison divestment are on the horizon.

But Thursday, the organizers of Divest UMass finally decided the university heard their voices and met their demands.

“For today, we’ve won. This is an incredible victory,” said Herman.