Wednesday, August 17, 2022

'Contract Be Damned': Students advocate for immediate fossil fuel divestment

February 15, 2022
<p>President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. and the Board of Trustees meet in person on the morning of Feb. 11, 2022.</p>

President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. and the Board of Trustees meet in person on the morning of Feb. 11, 2022.

Photo by Audrey Richardson | The State News

Sunrise MSU hub coordinator and social relations and policy senior Troy Distelrath said that he wants MSU to finish the job.

On Friday, Feb. 11, members of student environmental activist group Sunrise MSU spoke at an MSU Board of Trustees meeting, encouraging the Board to end any and all investments in fossil fuel companies. 

This was Sunrise MSU’s most recent appearance since the group spoke in front of the Board on Oct. 29, 2021. Students were met with what they considered a brief response at the Oct. 29 meeting, as the Board explained that MSU had not newly invested in any funds that are primarily concerned with fossil fuels since 2018. 

“Which is to say nothing of the funds they had invested in prior to that, nor the funds that our venture capital funds have potentially invested in since then, without our direct discretion but still with university dollars,” Distelrath said.

Now, Sunrise MSU is calling for full and immediate divestment from all investments in companies linked to fossil fuels.

“This time, we're coming in with receipts,” James Madison sophomore Savitri Anantharaman said before the meeting. “We've been looking at reports of what the university’s invested in now, and I think we have a better picture of what they're doing. … We've taken steps to show that there is a lot of community support from alumni, from staff, from faculty, from students around divestment.”

Part of this community support included a petition that Sunrise circulated that had reached around 500 signatures before the Feb. 11 meeting, Sunrise member and social relations and policy senior Noah Doederlein said. Sunrise MSU also held a teach-in event, at which guest speakers discussed investment and environmental justice.

Both Doederlein and Anantharaman spoke at the meeting. 

Doederlein acknowledged some of the progress that the university has made, including the aforementioned absence of any new investments in companies whose primary business is the exploration and extraction of fossil fuels.

However, Doederlein said that the university’s plan for divestment is not moving as fast as it should be.

“We are tired of being told that institutional change is only possible when it is immediately profitable,” he said. “This university's recent history of lack of transparency and accountability compels us to speak our conscience and come back to you in good faith, asking for full and immediate divestment to fulfill your obligations as public servants. No direct investments, new or old, no indirect investment behind the veil of venture capital proxies, and a charge to reinvest that money back into our community.” 

Distelrath said that this call to reinvest is a large part of the change that Sunrise MSU is calling for. These reinvestments could include investments in more sustainable energy corporations or scholarships given to prospective Anishinaabeg students — MSU acknowledges its occupation of the Anishinaabeg ancestral, traditional and contemporary Lands of the Anishinaabeg in its Provisional Land Grant Acknowledgement. 

Anantharaman also said that the university’s divestment timeline has been too slow.

“Bankrolling fewer fossil fuel companies than before is still bankrolling fossil fuel companies,” Anantharaman said. “I have hope that we can all share in a future that is just and equitable and livable, a future where Michigan State is a true partner in the fight for environmental justice, but every day that MSU profits from the exploitation of our land, that future seems weaker. Every day that this body finds even the idea of funding the poisoning of our people bearable, that future fades. … It’s time to take responsibility.”

Trustee Melanie Foster, chair of the Investment Advisory Subcommittee, said that the committee continues to support the decision to no longer invest in fossil fuel companies and funds, but that the university is contractually committed to the remaining investments in oil and gas funds. Foster also said that these investments make up less than 2% of the common investment fund.

“We do have commitments that we have to follow through with,” Trustee Brianna T. Scott said. “But I want you to understand we are moving forward in the vein in which I believe you all are so passionately telling us we need to in order to save our planet.”

While Trustee Rema Vassar did not name the climate crisis directly, she discussed how progress in increments can be dangerous.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about increments and the danger in trying to go slowly, when things need to go quickly, for justice to be done,” she said.

Other trustees acknowledged the passion of the students of Sunrise MSU.

After the meeting adjourned, Doederlein said that he felt conflicted with the results of the meeting. He said that he was disappointed that some Trustees did not speak on the matter at all, but that he was glad for the support that was given. He said that he feels that the discussion around the contractual obligations to investments in fossil fuel companies needs to be more transparent.

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“They might have contractually obligated investments, that might be the case — however, it doesn't change the fact that they're in a morally indefensible position on climate change,” he said. “They’re also not entirely public about which ones they are contractually obligated to. … We’re maintaining a healthy skepticism and hopefully trying to get past that smokescreen and make actual change happen.”

Distelrath was similarly conflicted. He said that he appreciated that trustees indicated more support for Sunrise MSU’s cause than before, particularly from Trustees Kelly Tebay, Scott and Vassar, but noted that none of these trustees are on the Investment Advisory Subcommittee.

He also said that he felt there was a contradiction within Foster’s comment that the discussed investments represent less than 2% of the investment fund.

“If it’s only 2% of the endowment then clearly the financial overhead risks are not that high,” Distelrath said. “If that's going to be your talking point, it seems that it would be smart for you from a moral standpoint, from a public relations standpoint, to just finish the job, contracts be damned.”

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