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November 08, 2012

Joining 350.Org's National Movement, Students Demand UVM Divest From Fossil Fuel Companies

Student Activist

University of Vermont students marched on a board of trustees meeting Thursday to demand that UVM sell off its shares in companies that contribute heavily to climate change.

"Divest, divest, put fossil fuels to rest," the 50 or so protesters chanted as they made their way across the university green on a gray and blustery afternoon. They urged other students walking across campus to join the demonstration, but only a couple did.

"We want to take away the prestige of these fossil fuel companies so they don't release untold amounts of carbon into the atmosphere," student activist Daniel Cmejla (pronounced Shmayla) told the trustees during a public comment period. He directly urged university president Tom Sullivan to "put UVM at the forefront of this national movement."

Climate-change action group 350.org — founded by Vermont's own Bill McKibben in Middlebury in 2008 —  has launched a national fossil fuel divestment drive. McKibben embarked Tuesday on a 21-city speaking tour to promote divestment from oil and gas investments on the part of universities and public pension funds. McKibben's trip won't take him to Vermont but UVM students are carrying the message.

Middlebury College students have joined the movement too. Five students were recently put on trial for a prank related to divestment, which has sparked a lively debate on campus about the topic. (Read Kathryn Flagg's story on that here.)

UVM marchingAt the conclusion of his statement to UVM trustees on Thursday, Cmejla asked everyone in the room who supported divestment to stand up. About 90 percent of the roughly 150 spectators rose in unison. The trustees did not respond to or engage the students.

Vermont Student Climate Culture, the group organizing the UVM campaign, says it has gathered 900 signatures on a petition calling for the university to entirely divest itself of stocks in fossil fuel companies by 2017. The students also want the trustees to liquidate UVM's holdings in two specific accounts at their scheduled board meeting in February: BlackRock All-Cap Energy & Resources Portfolio and Eaton Vance Small-Cap Value Fund, both of which are heavily invested in oil and gas companies, the students say.

The current value of UVM's endowment is $346 million, according to UVM spokesman Jeff Wakefield. In a statement, UVM Vice President for Finance Richard Cate said "given the nature of our investment portfolio," it is not possible to determine what percentage is invested in fossil fuel concerns. 

UVM students are going to make a presentation on the divestment proposal to the Socially Responsible Investment Advisory Council — a group made up of faculty, students and staff — on Nov. 27. The council will deliberate and subsequently make a recommendation to the investment subcommittee of the UVM board of trustees, Cate said.

The current divestment effort is modeled on the 1980s' anti-apartheid divestment movement that helped politically weaken South Africa's white-supremacist government. More than 150 colleges, universities and pension funds in the United States did divest from companies operating in the racist state.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a leading figure in the anti-apartheid movement, has endorsed the fossil fuel divestment campaign. Citing the role activists played 25 years ago in helping liberate South Africa, Tutu says in a video he recorded for 350.org that "corporations understood the logic of money even when they weren’t swayed by the dictates of morality."

The Nobel peace laureate adds in the video that "climate change is a deeply moral issue too." In Africa, Tutu notes, "We see the dreadful suffering of people from worsening drought, from rising food prices, from floods, even though they’ve done nothing to cause the situation. Once again, we can join together as a world and put pressure where it counts.”

UVM sophomore Tyler McFarland, an organizer of the school's climate action group, said at a rally near the Bailey-Howe Library that Hurricane Sandy "again showed the destruction that's occurring because of climate change. We can do something about it by joining together to try for a livable future."

Photo credit: Kevin J. Kelley

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