A Success Story in Divestment Activism: UMass Amherst

Let's begin with a quote from a May 25, 2016 UMass Amherst News & Media Relations press release...

"The decision [to divest from direct fossil fuel investments] was made by a unanimous vote of the Board of Directors of the UMass Foundation.... The decision followed a series of developments that signaled the University community's desire to fight climate change.  Last year, the Foundation voted to divest from direct holdings in coal companies in response to a petition from the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, a student group."

When I contemplate the meaning of "climate action leadership" or "focused on climate action," that blurb above is what comes to mind.  No diversion.  No extraneous nonsense.  No compromise.  And in the end... success!

Imagine that... success, from "focus" on climate "action."

That's what happened at our neighbor UMass.

Now, back to the story...

In May of last year, UMass became the first first major public university to completely divest its Foundation's endowment from any direct investment holdings in fossil fuels.  That endowment, a coffer containing $770 million.

The first step in the divestiture was the UMass Foundation's vote (in 2015) to immediately divest from coal.  Later, the Board of Trustees endorsed that move, stating that it was their position that climate change represented "a serious threat to the planet."  About the vote and later divestment, UMass' President Marty Meehan was quoted as saying:

"The 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.

Important societal change often begins on college campuses and often begins with students.  I'm proud of the students and the entire University community for putting UMass at the forefront of a vital movement...".

The month prior to Meehan's announcement above, the student run UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign had organized a series of on-campus protests calling for complete divestment beyond just coal.  It was during those protests that Meehan met with students and subsequently announced that he was recommending both full divestment and additional University investment in sustainable energy.  In furtherance of that enhanced clean energy investment, Meehan tapped the President's Science and Technology Initiative Fund which had the previous year, donated more than $900,000 in faculty research grants; a major focus of those grants being offshore wind power.

UMass' Chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy was further quoted as saying:

"The Foundantion's action today makes a powerful statement about [the University's] commitment to combating climate change and protecting our environment.  It also speaks volumes about our students' passionate commitment to social justice and the environment."

The Chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees, Victor Woolridge added:

"With this [unanimous] vote, the UMass Foundation adopts a divestment position that is among the most aggressively established for any major university - public or private- in the United States.

We do so, in part, because members of the [University] community have urged us to consider divestment in moral terms.  Since we acknowledge the moral imperative, we are willing to go beyond [mere divestment from coal alone] and take this additional step, but we are 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."

The primacy of climate change over money was expounded upon by the Foundation's Treasurer and Investment Committee Chairman Edward H. D'Alelio:

"Divesting from investments in any particular sector is not done lightly and we have done so rarely.... The Foundation's primary responsibility is a fiduciary one.  It's primary mission overseeing the endowment in an effort to maximize returns on funds donated for research, academic programs, financial aid and other purposes.  That we took this step reflects not just our comfort as fiduciaries but the seriousness with which we see climate change."

In much the same way as concerted effort in climate action diversion can successfully shift people's focus to meaningless preoccupation with personal greening behaviors (benefiting polluters and perpetuating the problem), serious and focused climate activism can be successful in achieving meaningful progress by forcing universities' divestiture from polluters while simultaneously increasing awareness of both the problem of climate change itself, as well as its importance over profits.

If these efforts can be successful in Amherst and Boston, why not in Cambridge?


Rick Shankman's picture

More evidence that "climate

More evidence that "climate action leadership" and "focus" can be successful in the battle against fossil fuel interests; such as those interests in natural gas, the fossil fuel interest MIT propos

es to "partner" with and fuel it intends to power its new CUP plant with - burning it on campus for the next 20 years.... 


"Maryland joins New York State, Vermont and a host of cities and counties across the U.S. in saying “no” to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing [for natural gas - methane].  Fracking is a dangerous process that pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals at very high pressure into petroleum-laden shale deposits far below ground.  Pummeling the shale forces it to release the gas or oil it contains.  But along with those fossil fuels come filthy waste water and cancer-causing by-products that endanger human health."

As for climate action leadership and focus on climate action...

"Food and Water Watch, another non-profit working to protect states and people from water pollution, attributed Maryland’s success in banning fracking to a years-long grassroots organizing campaign that began in 2012.  At the time the campaign launched, only a “small handful” of advocacy groups and activists were calling for a complete ban.  But the group organized:

  • in key political districts around the state
  • educated elected officials and citizens
  • built coalitions with public health advocates and community groups
  • held dozens of meetings, rallies and action
  • delivered 35,000 petitions and letters to lawmakers
  • got actor John Astin, a Maryland native and former star of TV’s “Addams Family,” to record a radio ad urging people to contact their state representatives and senators

The coalition also began to get fracking banned county by county.  The next step was passage of a two-year long state-wide moratorium that gave activists more time to organize across the state and lay the groundwork for the ultimate victory: a permanent ban.  As the movement grew to include thousands of people and more than 170 organizations, it “set us up to win big at the state level,” says Food and Water Watch."

That's what genuine leadership and focus on climate action can do!

It looks like those efforts can be successful not just in Amherst and Boston, but in Maryland, New York and Vermont too.