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Public, trustees comment on fossil fuel divestment, UNTF negotiations at BOT

April 22, 2022
<p>Action meeting of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees with public participation took place in the Hannah Administration Building on April 22, 2022.</p>

Action meeting of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees with public participation took place in the Hannah Administration Building on April 22, 2022.

Photo by Jared Osborne | The State News

The MSU Board of Trustees held its last meeting of the semester Friday, April 22 in the boardroom of the Hannah Administration Building, during which members of the MSU community addressed their concerns during public comments.

Topics included fossil fuel divestments, Union of Nontenure-Track Faculty, or UNTF, contract negotiations and the reinstatement of MSU’s swimming and diving team

Sunrise address fossil fuel divestment

Members of the MSU Sunrise Hub spoke to the trustees, for the third time this academic year, once again, requesting the university completely divest from fossil fuels. 

The first speaker for Sunrise was member and political science and economics junior Grace Rathburn. As a North Carolina native, Rathburn came to MSU to take advantage of the opportunities the university has to offer, including joining Sunrise. 

Rathburn thanked the board for taking the university off coal power, investing in carports for electric vehicles and for meeting with Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II about the production of electric vehicles.

Since Sunrise spoke to the board at the last meeting on Feb. 11, Rathburn said the movement has been busy doing teach-ins and came to the meeting with four new speakers, 30 supporters and a petition with over 1000 signatures. 

“As you know, we are here calling for full disinvestment, both direct and indirect from fossil fuels,” Rathburn said. “I like to look back on my time at MSU with pride, pride in knowing I was part of a responsible and forward thinking organization. … This university has provided students with so many opportunities. But what good will those opportunities provide? In a world full of climate change and pollution?”

James Madison College freshman Jesse Estrada White spoke to the board as a member of Sunrise and responded to past comments made by trustees on MSU’s investments. 

“Members of the Board have previously stated that currently only a small percentage of the endowment is invested in fossil fuels,” Estrada White said. “However, in a $4 billion endowment that small percentage is still millions of dollars — In fact, it's around $68 million, including over one and a half million dollars invested in Enbridge, a company that was responsible for the largest inland oil spill right here in Michigan, the Kalamazoo River oil spill.”

Social relations and policy sophomore Jakob Levengood was the third public commenter representing Sunrise. Levengood said public and private universities have made strides towards full divestment, including other Big Ten schools like the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan.

“These other institutions have recognized, the times are changing,” Levengood said. “If MSU was to really be the vehicle of change that I and so many others imagine, then an immediate termination of all direct and indirect investments in fossil fuels is essential. Divestment on this scale is not unheard of.”

Comparative cultures and politics senior Truman Forbes was the final commenter from Sunrise who asked the board to divest from fossil fuels. Forbes grew up in Bradford, Pennsylvania and said he came to MSU because of the sense of community that wants to make change in the world. 

“I felt like this was a place where I can make a community and friends with those that care about the environment, racial equity and making a difference in the world,” Forbes said. “Show me that I wasn't wrong for coming all the way to Michigan State. Show us you have the courage to listen not only to the science or even to the stakeholders of this university, but to the more than human life whose very survival depends on that is threatened by our negligence.”

In response to public comments from the Sunrise Hub, Trustee Pat O’Keefe shared his thoughts on the university’s investments in fossil fuels and suggested the students seek a degree in STEM to help research energy solutions.

“You're clearly passionate about the Earth,” O’Keefe said. “For long as I can remember the so-called experts have predicted the earth is coming to at least, and yet the world is not ending in 2030, 2035 or any random date in the future. At the current pace, there may not be a solution until at least 2100. … The issue is energy. We consume a lot.”

Trustee Rema Vassar thanked the Sunrise students for their resilience, perseverance and said she appreciates watching their evolution of thinking and strategy.

“Your challenge on structure and use of empowering language for individuals calls for systems and environment change is refreshing and that's where the work that we are doing at MSU is changing the environment in the system so that students can be successful here,” Vassar said. “I'm just so happy for your success, excited about your important research and heartened by your devotion for marginalized folks around the world."

Comments on union for non tenure track faculty contract negotiations 

Supply chain management assistant professor Carol Prahinski spoke to the board about UNTF contract negotiations, specifically voting rights and salary.

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“We can't vote on many of our committees, we can't vote in department meetings, we can't vote to participate in a democratic process,” Prahinski said. “Although MSU says it wants DEI — Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — the behaviors suggest otherwise, include our diverse perspectives for a richer and more equitable decision making. … We want MSU to be strong, with our collective efforts, Spartans will become a destination employer.”

Teaching assistant professor Victor Rodriguez-Pereira also spoke to the board about UNTF contact concerns. Rodriguez-Pereira has been at the university since 2017 in the Romance and Classical Studies department.

“Although I have been at MSU for a relatively short period of time, I have seen and experienced how little efforts in creating a diverse academic landscape have a detrimental impact on developing students and faculty alike,” Rodriguez-Pereira said. "As a Puerto Rican academic, in a poorly diverse field like medieval studies, I have experienced for low disabled students and faculty our need for structures and resources necessary to support the diverse faculty and student body, so that both can flourish and grow into the professionals we aspire to be.”

Meeting attendees honor Patrick Lyoya

Trustees and faculty liaison members expressed their condolences to the family of Patrick Lyoya, who was shot and killed by a Grand Rapids police officer on April 4. 

Faculty Liaison Stephanie Anthony thanked President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., Provost Teresa K. Woodruff and the board for their caring comments concerning the murder of Lyoya. 

“We now ask that your advocacy be transferred to actionable steps in whatever ways that you can,” Anthony said. “In view of the university's deep roots in the Grand Rapids community, we encourage the board to engage in some action that will produce tangible, real world outcomes for those in the Grand Rapids community who are suffering from over policing and racial battle fatigue.”

Trustee Brianna Scott said MSU needs to be committed to effecting change as an institution of education by educating and implementing strategic change in the Grand Rapids area.

“I am outraged as obviously a black woman (and) the mother of a black son,” Scott said. “I think the time is now and I think it needs to be on both sides, in law enforcement but also in educating black people, period, on how to survive traffic stops so that we can start seeing things happen … sooner rather than later.”

Vassar asked meeting attendees to observe a moment of silence for Lyoya. 

“I would like just to get a small moment of silence for the Grand Rapids family who lost their son, brother or father and the countless families who have to bear the heavy grief of losing loved ones at the hands of those conditioned to protect,” Vassar said.

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