UMass becomes the first major public US university to divest from fossil fuels

Living on Earth
UMass divestment protest

UMass Amherst students gathered outside of the Whitmore administration building on April 13, 2016, as 19 students who had participated in a sit-in were arrested and escorted out by university police. The University has now decided to fully divest from direct investments in fossil fuels. 

Katherine Mayo / Daily Collegian

The University of Massachusetts has become the first major public university system in America to pull direct investments in fossil fuels out of its endowment.

UMass joins a growing movement that has led public institutional funds worth more than $2.6 trillion to fully or partially divest from climate damaging fuels — including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Stanford University, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and two of the world’s biggest pension funds in California.

University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan says this landmark decision is key to the university’s broad program to address the existential threats of climate disruption.

“This action is consistent with the principles that have guided our university since its land grant inception,” Meehan says, “and I think it reflects our commitment to take on the environmental challenges that confront us as a country and confront our world. I also believe that higher education institutions have an obligation to show leadership on moral issues facing our society and, because of the impact on future generations, climate change is such an issue.”

The process that led to the divestment decisions began several years ago, Meehan says. In 2014, the UMass Foundation, which directs endowment investments and spending, created a socially-responsible investing advisory committee to evaluate proposals put forth by members of the university community. Last December, the foundation voted to divest itself from direct holdings in coal companies, which has since been completed.

Student protests helped push the foundation toward its divestment decision, Meehan says. In April, more than 30 students were arrested at UMass Amherst for occupying an office as part of a divestment protest. “Any time students protest, I think it's fair to say that presidents and chancellors pay attention,” he says. “I know the protesters got Chancellor Subbaswamy’s attention at UMass Amherst. He talked to me about it and I had a conversation with students on the phone, and then ended up driving out to Amherst to have a meeting with them. So I think it played a pretty important role.”

“The fact is,” Meehan concedes, “[the administration] wasn't actively engaged in asking the foundation for direct fossil fuels investments and here we are now, the first major public university in America to divest direct fossil holdings. So I think the students played a very important role.”

To those who criticize divestment as only a “symbolic” act, Meehan has this to say: “I think symbolism is actually important. I think universities should send the right message … Universities should address this from all angles, and I think symbolism in this case is important, and it got our students actively engaged and I think that's a good thing.”

Meehan believes the divestment movement has gathered momentum, and he would rather UMass be a leader than a follower.

“It's an issue that's not going to go away,” he maintains. “Research universities, in particular, are very, very important in terms of divesting, but also in terms of increasing the use of renewable energy …At UMass, we’ve entered into 15 separate solar contracts with 10 different solar developers. Universities are already doing a lot of things, but I think there will be more pressure from universities around the country to divest.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood