Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Divest UMass aims to end University investment in fossil fuel corporations

By Aviva Luttrell

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Courtesy of Divest UMass

A group of University of Massachusetts students have banded together to join a growing national movement aimed at convincing colleges and universities to pull their investments from fossil fuel companies.

The newly formed Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign is circulating a petition to UMass President Robert Caret requesting that the University vote to freeze any new investments in fossil fuel companies as well as divest completely from all current investments in funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds within five years. The group maintains that to continue to invest in coal, oil and gas companies is to profit from climate change.

Nationwide, groups at more than 300 schools have launched similar campaigns.

According to campaign member Jim Sowell, a senior architecture and design major, the Divest UMass petition has received 1,500 student signatures – a number that continues to grow by the day.

“It comes down to the fact that the University invests in industries that threaten our future,” Sowell said.

He said that communication between campuses involved in similar divestment campaigns has been a key part in learning how to organize and shape a social movement.

“Democracy is not a quiet process,” he said. “It all comes down to building student power.”

It was only this semester that Divest UMass began to gain footing and hold regular meetings. The campaign is an offshoot of the Sustainable UMass Action Coalition (SUMAC), a student group dedicated to sustainable living, which Sowell and a friend founded last year.

According to Sowell, the campaign at UMass was inspired by a series of environmental talks, including last September’s speech at Amherst College by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben as well as a talk by Van Jones, former green jobs advisor to the Obama administration, at UMass in October.

This past February, 20 UMass students attended the Forward on Climate Rally in Washington, D.C., which an estimated 40,000 Americans attended to demonstrate for progressive climate change policy. It was there that Divest UMass gathered support, and upon returning, the campaign had a sufficient number of members to move forward with formation.

The group began formulating ideas last semester, did some outreach and formed an alliance with members of the UMass Eco-Rep Program, a group of students working towards environmental literacy.

“They’ve been instrumental,” said campaign member Aaron Karp of the Eco-Rep program. Karp graduated from UMass last fall with a dual degree in psychology and Spanish and has worked closely with SUMAC to start Divest UMass.

The UMass Divestment Campaign is divided into two sections: a steering committee and a general body. The steering committee is comprised of 10 students who focus on the goals and general direction of the campaign. Twenty additional students make up the general body, which is divided into several subcommittees dedicated to recruitment and petitioning, media outreach and events.

Three weeks ago, the campaign received official support from Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Campus Life Jean Kim and Student Government Association President Akshay Kapoor when the SGA passed an “enactment” with the campaign’s request for divestment. The enactment demands a response from the UMass Foundation Investment Committee, which oversees the University’s endowment fund — an accumulation of money set aside and invested to support the school.

In 2007, a similar campaign at UMass was successful in encouraging the University to divest from companies doing business in Sudan due to the genocide there.

Although the school does not make public information about what companies the endowment money is invested in, Sowell said he’s very certain that some of UMass’s funds are invested in the fossil fuel industry because it hasn’t declared otherwise.

According to Sowell, the University hands over funds to an investment firm, which then invests that money into the most profitable corporations. If the firm were trying to maximize the portfolio’s returns, it would make sense to invest in the fossil fuel industry, which is currently the most profitable.

Divestment in fossil fuels presents an “unmatched leadership opportunity for the University,” Karp said. As an institution that prioritizes research, Karp said that UMass leaders value what’s in the best interest of students.

“Given what science tells us about how quickly we must scale back our use of fossil fuels, it makes sense that the best interest of students is served by not contributing to the problem,” he said.

Campaign members stressed the importance of working with the University to make change happen.

“The administration is not the villain,” Sowell said.

Karp said that the campaign wants to be as constructive as possible, saying, “We are committed to working with the University as best we can.”

For Karp, participation in this movement has been the first time he’s spoken out against anything in his life.

“I’ve learned that there are just too many problems within society here and throughout the world for people who know better not to stand up,” he said. Karp was inspired to join the movement after hearing McKibben talk about climate change on television.

On Friday afternoon, Divest UMass will hold a teach-in and rally from 3 to 5 p.m. beginning in Mahar Auditorium. The first hour of the event will feature student and expert panelists discussing topics such as environmental justice, community organizing and the climate change conundrum.

Following the teach-in, there will be a march to the Whitmore Administration building, which will continue down Hick’s Way, past the library and end at the steps of the Student Union.

Campaign members are asking people to wear orange to the event, which has become the official color of the nationwide movement.

“Environmental issues are not only environmental — they’re also economic and social,” Sowell said. He said that although the color green is traditionally paired with such issues, it’s not encompassing enough.

Several hundred people are expected to show up to the event.

Sowell said that movements like this are important because they “shed light on areas in shadow.

“What we can accomplish in the country is amazing if we can just come together,” he added.

Aviva Luttrell can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “Divest UMass aims to end University investment in fossil fuel corporations”

  1. David Hunt 1990 on April 5th, 2013 7:24 am

    Except for the documented fact – backed by real-world data – that the climate is far less sensitive to CO2 levels than the Holy Writ models suggest.

    [Reply]

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