University of Maine students win divestment from coal stocks, United States, 2015

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Started in the Fall semester of 2012
September
2012
to
January
2015
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Orono, Maine
Location Description: 
The main campus of the University of Maine.
Goals: 
UMaine student group Divest UMaine presented demands to the UMS board of trustees: the immediate freezing of all new assets invested in the top 200 fossil fuel companies and their remaining endowments with fossil fuel companies within the next five years.
 

Divest UMaine formed in December, 2012 at the University of Maine by co-founders Brooke Lyons-Justus, Connor Scott, and Catherine Fletcher. Sparked by a growing disapproval of fossil fuels in the United States along with increased public awareness of global warming, UMaine students, staff, faculty, and alumni formed Divest UMaine and aimed to convince the University of Maine System to freeze assets invested in top 200 fossil fuel companies and to “reinvest in a sustainable, socially responsible alternatives.”

According to Shaun Carland, a junior at the University of Maine and the president of the Students for Environmental Awareness and Sustainability Student Group, Divest UMaine was aiming for the University System to “immediately stop investing in any new fossil fuel companies, and divest what they currently do have invested in fossil fuels.” “It is Divest UMaine’s firm belief that the continued use of fossil fuels will lead to irreparable damages to our atmosphere within a few centuries” and that resulting climate changes will make Earth uninhabitable.

No stranger to radical activism campaigns, in 1982 the University of Maine was “one of the first 10 universities in the United States to pull the system’s principal portfolio money - $3 million - entirely out of corporations and banks doing business in apartheid South Africa.” The University of Maine Board of Trustees, pressured by a campaign led by the Maine Peace Action Committee, divested its holdings in South Africa in order to better represent their commitment to social change and justice. Like the social movements against apartheid, there has been a growing national movement “encouraging universities’ and college’s endowment managers to withdraw their investments from objectionable causes.” Divest UMaine aimed for a similar message, citing that moving away from fossil fuels is a smart move for the university, both morally and financially.

Although created during the fall semester of 2012, Divest UMaine failed to generate much momentum in its first year of its existence. However, the group and its efforts to push for divestment from fossil fuels began to gain strength in September of the following year when the University of Maine Student Senate endorsed Divest UMaine’s campaign. In order to catch the attention of the University of Maine administration, Divest UMaine began gathering hundreds of signatures on a petition to the University of Maine System board of trustees that eventually helped to open up the conversation between the University and its students, staff, faculty, and alumni. The board of trustees acknowledged the importance of the issue and agreed to reconsider investment opportunities in the future as the research on fossil fuels developed.

On Thursday, February 27, 2014, Divest UMaine officially presented their grievances to the University of Maine System (UMS) Board of Trustees and demanded that they divest fossil fuel related assets. In response to the petition, UMS Board of Trustees Chancellor James Page addressed the community, claiming that the school was committed to sustainability and that the “University of Maine System’s stewardship of the environment is important to the entire community.” Furthermore, Page stated that green portfolios would be analyzed and compared with the university’s standard investment practices. Also, the board looked into the recent divestments made by Unity College, the first college or university in the United States to divest from fossil fuel companies. According to Unity College, “their portfolio had not suffered as a result of divesting from fossil fuels.”

In order to keep pressure on the board of trustees, several demonstrations were held by several different student groups including Divest UMaine and 350 Maine. On 21 November 2014, almost 30 students staged a mock oil spill in front of the Folger Library on the University of Maine Orono campus. The protesters chanted for two hours, holding signs that read pro-divestment messages, such as “End Fossil Fuel Addiction” and “Divest From Climate Crisis.”

Almost a full year after the official petition from Divest UMaine, the University of Maine System board of trustees unanimously approved a policy to begin divesting from coal. Although the divestment from coal constituted a clear victory for Divest UMaine, the University System only committed to partial divestment from fossil fuels (coal) due to warnings from a 2014 report compiled by the New England Pension Consultants (NEPC). In the report, NEPC advised the University that “the wholesale divestiture of fossil fuel could have an impact on the system’s ability to manage risk, diversify, and seek returns. NEPC also warned of additional costs associated with managing a fossil fuel-free portfolio.”

Fellow Divest UMaine founder, Catherine Fletcher, acknowledged that, although full divestment was not achieved, the University System’s decision to divest from coal was a giant step in the right direction. “Originally we were going for full fossil fuel divestment... We’re going to look at it as a victory because it is a victory. But we’re not going to stop now. The coal is not enough but it was a nice first step.”

Research Notes
Influences: 

The UMaine students were influenced by previous UMaine students petitioning for the administration to divest from corporations and banks doing business in apartheid South Africa. (1) The success of Divest UMaine influenced many other student campaigns for divestment at other schools such as Stanford. (2)

Sources: 
Walczak, Danielle. 2014. “Student Group Urges UMaine Divestment from Fossil Fuels.” University Wire, Feb 24. Retrieved Sep 27 2015 (http://search.proquest.com/docview/150

1441027?accountid=14194).

Respaut, Robin. 2015. “University of Maine Board votes to divest from coal.” Reuters, Jan 27. Retrieved Sep 27 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20151215192142/http://www.reuters.com/article/maine-university-coal-idUSL1N0V62N320150127).

Abbate, Lauren. 2015. “UMS Unanimously Approves Policy to Begin Divesting from Coal.” University Wire, Feb 01. Retrieved Sep 27 2015 (http://search.proquest.com/docview

/1650070506).

Mitchell, Jennifer. 2015. “University of Maine to Vote on Coal Stocks.” MPBN News, Jan 25. Retrieved Sep 27 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20150616104758/http://news.mpbn.net/post/university-maine-vote-coal-stocks).

SanGiovanni, Iris. 2015. “University of Maine System Divests from Coal; Announces Full Divestment of UMPI Foundation.” Jan 26. Retrieved Sep 27 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20150809091214/http://350.org/university-of-maine-system-divests-from-coal-announces-full-divestment-of-umpi-foundation/).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Andrew Steele 27/09/2015