The University of Maine System Board of Trustees took a historic vote Monday by adopting a policy to divest all direct holdings from coal companies. Unity College in Unity, Maine was the first college in the country to divest from all fossil fuel holdings in 2012. But this marks the first time a public land grant institution or university system has taken a smaller step toward that goal.
With stricter limits being placed on carbon emissions around the world, students, faculty, staff and alumni in the Divest UMaine Coalition have been pressing for this action for the past two years. Before the board's vote, students like Connor Scott asked the trustees to consider what makes the best environmental and financial sense in the face of climate change.
"In the long run staying invested in the fossil fuel industry, specifically ones like coal whose entire net worth has decreased over 75 percent, is more risky than taking the jump of starting the process of divestment now," Scott said.
And Karen Marysdaughter, a graduate of the University of Maine, urged trustees to remember their own stated commitment to invest in programs that grow healthy economies and do so with "bold, pragmatic risk-taking."
"The citizens of Maine and, even more so, your students, are looking to you for bold leadership in a frightening and uncertain time," said Marysdaughter. "Divesting from coal will send a message, letting us know that the people at the helm are taking the long view with the best interests of all of us at heart. Thank you. "
UMaine Trustee Karl Turner took note of the begrudging acceptance of climate change as a real phenomenon by members of the U.S. Senate in recent days. He says that's just one of the small steps necessary to confront a massive problem that will require multiple strategies, including a commitment to renewable energy sources.
"And I subscribe to the notion of thinking globally and acting locally and I hope the rest of the board will join me in doing that and voting in the affirmative on this matter," Turner.
The board's unanimous vote was welcome news to University of Southern Maine student Meaghan LaSala of Divest UMaine. While the new directive does not require liquidation of holdings of mutual or co-mingled funds, LaSala says the board's vote is a major victory and a good first step. But she says she agrees with Trustee Bonnie Newsom who wants to see the board work toward full fossil fuel divestiture.
"The reality is that the entire fossil fuel industry is incompatible with life on Earth and with justice for communities that bear the brunt of their toxic and exploitive practices, so that continues to be our goal and we're going to continue to press the investment committee to move toward full fossil fuel divestment," LaSala said.
The coal directive is modeled after a policy approved by Stanford University earlier this year. At Monday's board meeting, University of Maine Presque Isle President Linda Schott also announced that her campus has previously taken steps to move its assets out of fossil fuels. She says as of this past November, the school was completely divested.
Disclosure: UMaine trustee Karl Turner also serves on the board of MPBN.