Divest Movement Grows at UMass

UPDATE:  The President of the UMass System has pledged his support to the Divest Movement started at UMass Amherst.  If passed, we would be the first public university in the nation to stop investing in corporately controlled fossil fuel companies.  For details see: DIVESTMENT UPDATE

Below is an article from the local news a week earlier….

AMHERST — If University of Massachusetts officials fully divest the state system’s endowment from the top 200 publicly traded fossil-fuel companies as student protesters are demanding, a UMass economics professor says the impact would be largely symbolic — at first.

“By itself, this would be a drop in the bucket. The UMass folio is just not that big,” Gerald Friedman said Wednesday. “I don’t think ExxonMobil is going to notice.”

However, Friedman said, the shift would make a powerful statement that could prompt colleges and universities with much larger endowments, such as Harvard, to consider similar action.

“If that happens, then the oil and gas companies would find it much more difficult to raise capital,” Friedman said, observing these companies might be forced to invest more in solar and wind sources to show they care about slowing climate change.

Friedman’s comments were echoed by Bill McKibben, the well-known author and environmental activist who serves as inspiration for many of the protesters.

“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,” McKibben wrote in an email to the Gazette. “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.”

Wednesday marked the third day that UMass students engaged in a protest demanding that university leaders create an immediate and clear path to end all investments in gas and oil companies. The UMass Foundation manages a $770 million endowment; it was unclear Wednesday what portion of the money is in fossil fuel investments.

In the face of a growing protest on campus, the UMass News Office issued a statement Tuesday on behalf of Victor Woolridge, chairman of the trustees, and President Martin Meehan, promising to “advocate for a policy that would see the five-campus UMass system divest and prohibit direct investment in fossil fuel companies.”

“We are really hopeful and excited to hear from the chairman and the president that they will be working to divest from the fossil fuel industry,” said Mica Reel, a UMass sophomore and spokeswoman for the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign.

But Reel cautioned that such pledges may not be enough, particularly if protesters do not see evidence that divestment is actually happening.

“There’s no transparency around the investments,” Reel said.

Smith College astronomy professor James Lowenthal, a faculty member leading divestment efforts at the Northampton college, said in an email from Montreal that the protests at UMass are drawing attention to climate change and the “economic apparatus” that supports the extraction, refining and burning of fossil fuels.

“They demonstrate that students, staff and faculty at UMass realize how important and serious the issue of climate change is, and that they are willing to speak out and even risk arrest to do something about it,” Lowenthal said.

Lowenthal said the student protesters are also showing that there are both moral and financial reasons for cutting ties to fossil fuel investments, arguing that UMass is benefiting financially from an industry that is wreaking havoc on Earth’s global climate system, and is willing to lie about those effects, as well as to oppose policies that could slow or reverse climate change.

UMass would benefit from a better long-term financial return by investing in renewable energy, he said.

Gabbi Zutrau, a lead student strategist for Divest Smith College, said organizers there have not yet formally asked Smith College trustees to divest from fossil fuel companies.

“We have been trying to work with the administration at Smith to achieve our goal of divesting the endowment from the fossil fuel industry, and so far we’ve been able to accomplish a lot together,” Zutrau said.

But Zutrau said Smith students have been showing solidarity and support by participating in the UMass sit-in.

The UMass protests have also drawn support from faculty, staff and community members — including a letter from the Massachusetts Society of Professors union, distributed Wednesday afternoon, praising the Divest UMass position.

“If this moves forward, it will be a success on a whole new front,” said Madeleine Charney, a Mothers Out Front Pioneer Valley organizer and a librarian at UMass who is a member of the MSP union.

Charney observes that no other public university has committed to divesting from all fossil fuels.

Among the Five Colleges, only Hampshire College has committed to eliminating oil and gas from its investment portfolio. In 2014, Hampshire’s board of trustees approved a sustainable investment policy that screens out fossil fuel holdings.

Even though the UMass Foundation endowment pales financially next to mutual funds and state retirement pensions, investments that are in the trillions of dollars, Friedman said this could be the start of a trend.

“They could play a real positive role in pushing toward a sustainable economy,” Friedman said. “This is how movements get built.” In December, Lowenthal was among more than 90 Smith College professors who submitted a petition to its president and trustees requesting that the college freeze new investments in fossil fuel; commit to divest, within five years, from any direct ownership or commingled funds; and publish an annual progress report.

Smith President Kathleen McCartney responded in an email sent in February that Smith’s endowment, which was $1.7 billion in December, has a total fossil fuels investment of 6 percent, with 2.4 percent in publicly traded investments, and 3.6 percent in private equity holdings, but no direct holdings in coal.

Amherst College has the largest endowment among the Five Colleges, at nearly $2.2 billion as of the end of 2015. Like Smith, Amherst has eliminated coal holdings, said spokeswoman Caroline Hanna.

The college’s practice is not to divulge how much is invested in oil and gas, which she said is not unusual for private colleges and universities. However, she said, students and faculty should have confidence in how such decisions are made.

“The college’s investment office staff and trustee investment committee are being proactive in talking to our portfolio managers about climate change and the risks associated with climate change,” Hanna said.

Mount Holyoke’s endowment stood at $703 million last June, said spokesman Julia Ferrante in an email, and the college estimates that the value of indirect investments in fossil fuel companies is less than 3 percent.

“A group of trustees and alumnae of the college comprise our investment committee, which works with our investment consultants and fund managers to ensure that we are investing for a sustainable future,” Ferrante said.

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

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