May 16, 2014

Divestment activists meet with administration, Trustees next

More than a year after students supported a referendum urging the University to consider the environmental impact of the companies it invests in, climate activists met with top University administrators for the first time on Thursday afternoon. The activists presented an argument for withdrawing portions of the University’s endowment stock from fossil fuel companies, with administrators agreeing to further meetings.

Three representatives from Stop Funding Climate Change (SFCC) presented recommendations from a 60-page report outlining why the University should divest from fossil fuel companies to Chief Investment Officer Mark Schmid, Secretary of the University Darren Reisberg, Vice President for Communications Julie Peterson, and Dean of Students in the University Michele Rasmussen. The meeting was organized by University President Robert Zimmer, who did not attend.

The meeting came at a time when momentum for divestment on college campuses may be growing. Earlier this month, Stanford University announced that it would join 11 other schools in withdrawing investments in coal companies, making it the most well-known institution to do so.

SFCC representatives declined to comment on the specifics of the meeting because talks with the administrators are ongoing, but second-year SFCC co-coordinator Sam Zacher, who attended the meeting, said in a statement, “there was a strong emphasis placed on investing primarily and solely for the highest endowment returns.”

The meeting was the latest development in an effort that began last spring, when 70 percent of voters (2,183 students) in last year’s SG elections supported a referendum that called on the University to “shift its investment strategy to account for the environmental impact of oil, gas, and coal used by the companies it invests in.” Zimmer responded to the referendum by asking for a more detailed argument favoring divestment last spring, which climate activists delivered to his office in February.

First-year SFCC co-coordinator Johnny Guy, who also attended yesterday's meeting, said the meeting was constructive. “They were receptive to our arguments and both sides came out feeling we had had a good dialogue,” he said.

Zacher said that SFCC reached an agreement with Reisberg to discuss setting up a meeting with the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees, which would have to approve any kind of divestment. The University has approximately 3 to 4 percent of its portfolio invested in coal and other non-sustainable forms of energy, Schmid said at a public leadership conversation event in the fall.

In a statement, Peterson said that the meeting offered an opportunity for top University leaders to understand SFCC’s arguments for divestment and explain the University’s position on investments.

“We came away deeply impressed with the students’ preparation and detailed thinking, and with a new appreciation for the depth of their convictions. And we agreed, together with the students, that we would do all we could to maintain and enhance an environment in which robust inquiry into issues like climate change and divestment flourishes,” Peterson said in the statement.

Before the meeting, Zacher said that the group would use it as an opportunity to gauge the opinion of top administrators on divestment and to see whether they would take a public stance on the issue. Zacher and Guy attended the meeting along with third-year Undergraduate Liaison to the Board of Trustees and SFCC member Brendan Leonard.

The report makes scientific, moral, financial, and institutional cases for divestment. Among other arguments, the report suggests that the University’s mission “to do all things necessary or pertaining to” establishing and preserving opportunities for higher education necessitates that it act on climate change because the consequences of climate change would hinder opportunities for higher education. The report also argues that divestment would not violate the political neutrality demanded by the Kalven Report, because the action would be taken voluntarily and would not limit the expression of faculty or students.

Editor’s Note: Sam Zacher is a Maroon Sports Editor.