Students at the University of Montana have been chanting the word "reinvest" with growing intensity during the past year. Community members, professors, Native American activists and Nobel Laureate Steve Running have joined in the refrain, either in the form of public speeches or petition signatures. Now, after numerous rallies, marches and meetings with university leaders, Reinvest Montana is preparing for the biggest moment yet in its push to see the UM Foundation rid itself of any investments in fossil fuels.
On Sept. 23, the student group will make its case to a special subcommittee of the foundation's board of trustees. And on Sept. 24, ASUM President Cody Meixner intends to yield a portion of his time before the entire foundation board to Reinvest Montana.
"We've been working at this so long and it's been so difficult to get concessions out of [the foundation], sometimes even I do forget that we've made a lot of progress in the last year in terms of some of this stuff," says Reinvest Montana's Nick Engelfried. "It's going to be really interesting to see what their reactions are and what happens at these meetings."
The twin presentations this month come roughly a year and a half after Reinvest Montana was first directed to draft a proposal for the foundation's consideration. Engelfried and his cohorts describe that 18-month path as one fraught with communication difficulties and discouraging turns. During one meeting last fall, says Reinvest's Caitlin Piserchia, then-board chair Mike McDonough shot down the group's divestment pitch in no uncertain terms. That low point prompted Reinvest to redouble its efforts, and the dialogue with the foundation reopened late last year. Convincing UM and even some in the Missoula community that divestment is the right path hasn't been easy, Piserchia says.
"I think early on we were seen as radical," she adds. "One of the main challenges has been just persuading this community that this is not radical at all, that it's a very reasonable and kind of low-key action to take in the face of climate change."
- photo courtesy of Reinvest Montana
- For nearly two years now, students with Reinvest Montana have been holding rallies and marches in an attempt to sway the UM Foundation into divesting its interests in fossil fuels. The group will make its case before a special foundation subcommittee Sept. 23.
The group says one alarming realization came during a May 28 meeting when the foundation's Investment Committee Chair Mack Clapp raised doubts about the conclusiveness of climate change science—an exchange verified by notes taken by Reinvest Montana during the meeting as well as Susan Estep, a professional portfolio manager who has been offering the group financial counseling. Engelfried adds he wasn't sure he'd heard Clapp correctly at first because he didn't expect such a statement from someone "who is associated with a major academic institution that has a climate change studies program."
When asked about the meeting, spokesperson Melissa Wilson told the Indy the foundation was unable to provide details at this time. "With this divestment group, I feel like the development of a subcommittee and making sure we're taking the time to really learn, evaluate and respond is the right thing to do," Wilson said.
Yet Reinvest Montana has managed to create momentum in spite of those hurdles. This February, the group delivered a petition signed by more than 1,500 supporters to the UM Foundation's offices. A referendum calling for divestment from fossil fuels put to the UM student body later in the spring passed with 80 percent of the vote.
"This movement in particular is gaining a lot of popularity with students not just at UM but around the country, and the calls at UM are very loud," Meixner says. "It is my job specifically to advocate for them and to represent the student voice as I hear it on campus."
Over the past year, the broader divestment movement has scored major victories across the globe with commitments from foundations, pension funds, universities, faith-based organizations and municipal governments. The U.K.'s Guardian Media Group announced it would fully divest from fossil fuels this April. Weeks later, Oxford University officially ruled out any future investments in coal and tar sands oil. And on May 27, leaders in Norway agreed to dump $8 billion worth of coal-related investments from the $900 billion Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund—the single largest government pension fund in the world.
Those and a near-weekly string of other international successes have left members of Reinvest Montana feeling confident. They hope to parlay that momentum into a strong argument for divestment at home going into their Sept. 23 meeting with the UM Foundation's fossil fuel subcommittee, which was created earlier this year specifically for the task of discussing divestment.
"It's really taking off," Engelfried says. "That's one of the things that makes me really excited about being part of this movement. I hope that all of this momentum will start to convince the UM Foundation it's time we should be divesting."