UW-Madison students were joined by community activists Thursday in demanding that the university divest itself of investments in fossil fuel companies to support efforts to slow the pace of climate change.
“The University of Wisconsin is lagging behind,” said UW-Madison student Kevin Meyers, a member of 350 UW.
Scores of universities — including the University of Washington and University of California — nonprofit organizations, faith communities and local governments have committed to full or partial divestment from fossil fuels.
Failing to do so at Wisconsin contradicts the university’s mission statement to “help ensure the survival of this and future generations,” said Meyers, a senior in environmental studies.
And public support for such actions is growing, students said.
“People are realizing that if we don’t do something now, we won’t be able to save the earth,” said 350 UW member Lauren Peretz, a junior in biology.
At Bascom Hall, eight student protesters staged a sit-in outside the office of Chancellor Rebecca Blank. Associate dean of students Kevin Helmkamp arrived to receive their request for a meeting on divestment issues.
Members of the community-based 350 Madison also are working to get the university to divest. The group is encouraging alumni to withhold donations to UW-Madison and submit them instead to a Multi-School Fossil Free Divestment Fund, whose two dozen members also include the University of Illinois, Stanford and Dartmouth. The fund would release donations upon the recipient institution’s commitment to divestment, Isaacs said at Thursday’s demonstration.
The UW-Madison Faculty Senate split on the issue two years ago, opting not to recommend divestment.
“Fossil fuel companies are in Congress stopping reasonable climate change legislation,” Isaacs said. “They have too much power.” Divestment by institutions like UW-Madison challenges lawmakers to move to limit their economic power, she said.
Thursday’s action also brings public attention to the upcoming international conference on climate change in Paris, Nov. 30-Dec. 11, where governments of 190 nations will discuss a possible new agreement on carbon emissions.
Officials of the UW Foundation, a nonprofit organization that manages UW-Madison’s $2.3 billion endowment, have said in the past that divestment is not practical or desirable.
Vince Sweeney, vice president for communications for the UW Foundation and Alumni Association on Thursday released this statement:
"The UW Foundation is a private entity independent from UW-Madison. Gift agreements with our donors specify the program the donor intends to support and the terms under which the gift is received. Our investment policies remain driven by our obligation to maximize the impact of a donor¹s gift on the intended program. We believe this policy is in the best interests of all who care about the University and its mission.”
Peretz said, however, that fossil fuel companies are not stable investments and that if world reserves are burned, the resulting destruction of the planet makes those stores worthless.
There are some indications that major philanthropic foundations that have resisted divestment pressures in the past have been responding to market forecasts as they quietly unload fossil fuel holdings.