Students occupy UM Foundation’s office to punctuate “climate crisis”

University of Montana students and members of Reinvest Montana occupy the main lobby of the UM Foundation on Wednesday to urge the school to divest its investment portfolio of fossil fuels. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

It was shortly after 9 a.m. when Simon Dykstra and Beverly Sitton joined several of their student peers inside the main entry of a University of Montana office building on Wednesday, their protest signs ready for a campus rally later in the day.

While UM is crowded with offices, this one on the second floor of the Gilkey Executive Education Building happens to house the UM Foundation, which manages the university’s $167.3 million investment portfolio.

And it’s the contents of that portfolio that has members of Reinvest Montana up in arms.

“We’re asking the UM Foundation to divest in fossil fuels and reinvest in solutions to the climate crisis,” said Dykstra, who co-coordinates the student group. “We’ve had the door shut on us by the people who work in this building. After three years of transparency issues and stonewalling, we feel like our voices haven’t been heard, so we’re sitting in to bring the issue to them.”

To say the students have had the door shut on them may be a figure of speech, given that they’ve occupied the UM Foundation’s main lobby for the past two days without incident and with little complaint by those who work there.

Rather, Dykstra and the band of protesters question the foundation’s transparency when it comes to responding to the students’ concerns. Mack Clapp, chairman of the foundation’s investment committee,  has met with Reinvest Montana “just” twice, Dykstra says with a tone of dismay. He  adds that the foundation itself has failed to give the Associated Students of the University of Montana a seat on the board.

“This is all happening as the climate crisis is worsening and our administration rolls back protections on our climate and environment,” Dykstra said. “Renewable energy is one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. and it employs more people than fossil fuels. Coal employs as many people as bowling alleys.”

Officials with the UM Foundation have been consistent in stating that roughly 8 to 10 percent of the school’s portfolio is invested in energy. That includes everything from renewable resources, including wind and solar, to fossil fuels like oil and gas.

Less than 1 percent of the portfolio is invested in coal, the foundation maintains, though members of Reinvest Montana want to eliminate that figure completely.

“Divesting from fossil fuels is important to me because it sends a large message,” said Sitton. “It says UM is on the right side of history, it shows we’re sticking to our core tenets of sustainability, and it makes a big impact, given how $12 million is going to this destructive industry.”

Sitton, who grew up in Billings and graduated from Billings West High School in 2014, has a family history that’s rare to members of Reinvest Montana. Several of her uncles are employed by the fossil fuel industry as petroleum engineers.

That, Sitton says, makes for interesting conversations during family reunions and Facebook exchanges. While her family members recognize the reality of climate change, she said, they make their living off the industry she opposes.

Roughly 60 University of Montana students rallied on campus in January to call upon the Trump administration, state leaders and UM to divest from fossil fuels and address climate change. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“As someone who comes from Montana and whose family has ties to the fossil fuel industry, the most important part to me is the focus on the transition,” Sitton said. “That includes things like retraining people who used to work in the fossil fuel industry into new jobs. Clean energy is actually growing at a faster rate than the fossil fuel industry, and it’s projected to keep doing that.”

Over the last 16 years, the amount of global electricity produced by solar has doubled seven times while wind energy has doubled four times over the same period, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the United Nation’s Environment Programme.

At the same time, fossil fuels have been getting trounced by falling prices and declining investments. Investment in renewable energy hit roughly $270 billion in 2015, while investments in fossil fuels stagnated at around $140 billion, the two agencies reported.

“I think a lot of people see this as an issue that’s too big to be solved with small-scale actions,” said Sitton. “It’s actually why we petitioned the board. While we can all make individual changes to impact climate change, pulling out millions of dollars from that industry is the most impactful way students can effect change.”

Over the past three years, according to Dykstra, Reinvest Montana has collected an estimated 2,500 petition signatures in support of its cause. It also has held a number of protests and rallies, one of which resulted in 16 arrests.

That event, Dykstra said, marked a “huge moment” in the group’s campaign and suggested that the UM campus was willing to take the next step for justice in climate change. It’s a similar message sent by the Missoula City Council in April – a message the students are keenly aware of.

In a unanimous vote on April 3, the council divested roughly $2.6 million in city funds from Wells Fargo Bank. Members of the council took that step to protest the bank’s involvement in the Dakota Access Pipeline and its well-reported unscrupulous and predatory banking practices.

“That’s part of what creates a vibrant community,” said Dykstra. “We have artists, musicians, entrepreneurs creating new things, or activists and people who are pushing the city or university to stand for things that will only benefit other people.

“UM divesting from fossil fuels won’t be a negative thing,” he added. “It’s a matter of the values they hold.”

It its most recent correspondence with Reinvest Montana, the UM Foundation sent an email on April 25 acknowledging the group’s presence and asking it to work through its student representatives on ASUM.

“The UM Foundation Board of Trustees acknowledges that Reinvest Montana was recognized by ASUM as an official student group in 2016-17,” the correspondence reads. “The board of trustees requests that Reinvest Montana, as a recognized ASUM student group, forward questions and concerns to the UM Foundation through the ASUM Senate, which we recognize as the official representatives and advocates of the student body.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com