Students at the University of Maine are calling on the system’s board of trustees to completely divest from fossil fuel holdings following similar decisions by a growing number of colleges and universities around the country.

“It’s clear that addressing climate change … is a central concern of the student body,” Charlie Cooper, an organizer with the group Divest UMS, said during a UMaine System board of trustees meeting Monday. “Talk to folks my age about these issues and you’ll hear a few central themes: anxiety about our future, despair for species already lost, and ever-dwindling faith in those people and institutions in power who stand by and fail to act. I invite the board to make the right call and act.”

Cooper was among a half-dozen students who called on the board to end investments in fossil fuels. The topic has come up frequently from students at recent board meetings and comes as a growing number of campuses around the country are deciding to move away from investments in fossil fuels.

Harvard University announced Sept. 9 that it is planning to not make new investments in fossil fuels and is winding down legacy investments that currently constitute less than 2 percent of its overall endowment. Boston University announced a similar decision last week, saying it would be fully divesting from fossil fuels. And in March, Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey, announced it would divest its fossil fuel investments, which at the time made up about 5 percent of the university’s $1.6 billion endowment. Students on all three campuses have been pushing for divestment for years.

At least 66 colleges and universities around the country have either fully or partially divested from fossil fuels, according to Divest Ed, a group working to expand fossil fuel divestment campaigns on college campuses. The group already includes the University of Maine System in its list for a partial divestment in 2015, when the board voted to reduce its direct coal holdings.

Fossil fuel holdings currently make up about $14.3 million of University of Maine System investments, or less than 2 percent of the system’s $759.6 million portfolio. Students who spoke Monday, however, said they want to see full divestment from fossil fuels.

“The severity and frequency of extreme weather events are a product of humans burning fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ryan O’Leary, a sophomore at the University of Maine. “If we want to do anything to adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change, we need sweeping legislation, bold restrictions on fossil fuel companies and an active fight against their influence on democracy. We need all of you to enter the conversation and seriously entertain the option of following in the footsteps of other institutions before us.”

“Were these (funds put in fossil fuels) invested elsewhere, these companies would have less resources to further pollute the planet,” said Leo Rubin, a freshman. “Fewer resources could prompt larger companies to become more sustainable, leading to a brighter and healthier future for everyone. Please make the sustainable choice and divest from fossil fuels.”

Earlier this month, members the board’s investment committee and system leadership met with members of Divest UMS to discuss climate change and divestment. “We are thankful to the student groups past and present for their moral imperative to affect change,” Kelly Martin, chair of the investment committee, said at Monday’s meeting. “It is because of their effort that over the last eight years the UMaine System has been on a steady path towards reduction of our exposure to fossil fuels within our investment portfolios.”

POLICY CHANGE BEGAN IN 2016

In 2016, the system adopted a change in investment policy to give consideration to environmental and social principles in investment and management decisions. That policy has led to a 70 percent reduction in fossil fuel investments in the endowment as well as significant reductions in overall investments. Martin said the committee is planning to report to the full board again in November on fossil fuel divestment but didn’t say whether any additional steps are being considered to further reduce investments. 

“The UMS Investment Committee has been in open dialogue with students since 2013 in their concerted effort to divest from fossil fuels,” Martin said in a statement after the meeting. “The UMS’s holistic approach of (environmental, social and governance) investing, adopted in 2016 working closely with students, has allowed the system to select best-in-class managers who invest in companies that align with our environmental, social and governance values all the while keeping our fiduciary responsibility front and center. Additionally, (this approach) has significantly reduced the portfolios’ fossil fuel exposure to less than 2 percent while maintaining risk and return goals.”

Maine has been hailed as a leader in the movement to divest from fossil fuels after new legislation was approved last summer requiring both the state treasurer and the board of the state pension fund, MainePERS, to divest from fossil fuels by January 2026.

Unity College, a private environmentally focused school in Maine, also was an early leader in the divestment movement in higher education when it became the first U.S. college to divest its portfolio of companies that produce fossil fuels in 2012.

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