UMass caves after month of protests, agrees to fossil fuel divestment

Submitting to the demands of student protesters, the University of Massachusetts has decided to sell its investments in fossil fuels, making it the first major university in the country to divest from the industry.

UMass announced in a press release Monday that its Board of Directors had unanimously endorsed the divestment, which the school describes as the culmination in a series of recent steps taken at the behest of students concerned about climate change.

Student environmental activists at the Amherst campus have been pressuring the university to divest for months, creating a Facebook group, the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, to organize protests and sit-ins at the Whitmore administration building.

The group describes itself as a “student power organization fighting for climate justice by demanding our institution divest from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies and reinvest in projects and funds that do not perpetuate racism, classism, sexism, and other systems of oppression,” adding that its goal is “to bring the crisis created by economic inequality and climate change to those who are responsible and challenge our University to take the bold action necessary to ensure a just future for its students, the Commonwealth, and the world.”

The protesters were determined, and were willing to brave arrest by refusing to disperse from the building. Many of them skipped classes and had to be forcefully removed by the UMass Police, but they would nonetheless continue to hold sit-ins until their demands were met.

At one point, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein visited the campus to commend the students for their efforts, and various professors also encouraged their actions.

In response to the demonstrations last month, university President Marty Meehan met with representatives from the Divestment Campaign, emerging from the meeting pledging to support not only full divestment from fossil fuels, but also increased investment in the “green” energy industry.

“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 of the divestment vote. “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.”

He also provided additional details about his green energy plan, saying he plans to boost funding for “sustainability/green technology projects” with money from the President’s Science and Technology Initiative Fund, which last year awarded over $900,000 in research grants.

UMass Board of Trustees Chairman Victor Woolridge, who plans to seek an endorsement of the divestment at the next Board meeting on June 15, suggested that the green energy funding would help to offset the financial losses that could result from selling the university’s holdings in fossil fuel companies.

“We do so, in part, because members of the UMass community have urged us to consider divestment in moral terms,” he explained. “Since we acknowledge the moral imperative, we are willing to go beyond last year’s action and take this additional step, but we’re also mindful of our moral and fiduciary obligation to safeguard the University’s endowment, which provides critical funding for faculty research and student scholarships, and must be protected against losses. We believe this conclusive action balances those two priorities.”

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