Board of Regents announces freeze on fossil fuel investments

Thursday, February 20, 2020 - 9:31pm

Engineering senior Logan Vear holds a sign to encourage divesting from fossil fuels at the Regent's meeting at the Richard L. Postma Family Clubhouse Thursday afternoon.

Engineering senior Logan Vear holds a sign to encourage divesting from fossil fuels at the Regent's meeting at the Richard L. Postma Family Clubhouse Thursday afternoon. Buy this photo
Dominick Sokotoff/Daily

 

The University of Michigan is freezing its fossil fuel investments — for the time being. 

On Thursday evening, during the University’s Board of Regents meeting at the Richard L. Postma Family Clubhouse, University Regent Mark Bernstein (D) announced the board is looking into the University’s policy on investments in fossil fuel companies. New investments will not occur during this time.

“We will not bring forward new direct investments in fossil fuel companies while we study the investment policy of the University of Michigan with regard to all fossil fuel investments in a deliberative, thorough, inclusive, and responsible manner,” Bernstein said. “We will proceed with this assessment as quickly as possible and plan to take any appropriate actions in the months ahead.”

After Bernstein’s announcement, the audience immediately erupted in applause. The University is the first Big Ten school to pause future investments in fossil fuel companies.

Approximately 80 University students and faculty and Ann Arbor community members were in attendance to observe the meeting. University Regent Shauna Ryder Diggs (D) called into the meeting from a remote location. Acting Provost Susan Collins was also present.

University President Mark Schlissel took the beginning of the meeting to comment on recent allegations of sexual misconduct that have surfaced against prominent University administrators. He encouraged students and faculty who were disturbed by the allegations to utilize University resources and continue supporting those who come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct.

After Schlissel said he condemned all instances of sexual misconduct, an audience member interrupted his speech, shouting, “You knew!” 

Schlissel addressed the actions the University had previously taken in response to allegations of sexual misconduct against the late Robert Anderson, former director of University Health Services and an athletics team physician. In 2003, Anderson retired from the University.

“The patient-physician relationship involves a solemn commitment and trust,” Schlissel said. “The allegations are highly disturbing. On behalf of the University, I apologize to anyone who was harmed by Dr. Anderson … To those who reported Dr. Anderson and to anyone who has reported sexual misconduct in any case, I express my sincere gratitude for your courage.”

Schlissel also commented on the recent investigation into Martin A. Philbert, the University’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, who was accused of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. Schlissel said the University has hired an outside independent law firm to investigate the situation and therefore, he will not publicize the specifics of the case.

“Because this investigation is so critical and because we must ensure that the outside independent firm is able to conduct their investigation in a thorough, reliable and fair way, I will not be able to share any details while the investigation is underway, even though I know that there’s wide interest in the case,” Schlissel said.

Public Policy junior Ben Gerstein, Central Student Government president, also spoke at the meeting. His address began with a statement reaffirming his apology for comments he made in 2017 on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Multicultural organizations on campus called for public apologies from Gerstein and CSG Tuesday night, as well as anti-Islamophobia and anti-bias training for CSG members.  

“I want to reaffirm that apology and just reference my commitment and CSG’s collective commitment towards ensuring this campus is inclusive for our Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students,” Gerstein said. “We look forward to getting to work in the last four weeks of my administration to take action and show solidarity with students who felt impacted by my past words.” 

Gerstein continued by addressing a survey CSG released to the campus community at the end of December about mental health and well-being on campus. According to Gerstein, of the 2166 respondents, 55 percent noted that Counseling and Psychological Services appointment wait times were a significant barrier toward seeking treatment. He also described the issue of a lack of well-being resources for students on North Campus.

“I think it’s important that we recognize the incredibly difficult work of being a CAPS counselor, so I want to thank them for the work that they do when our students are able to see them,” Gerstein said. “But because of the extreme costs of off campus care, CAPS exists as really the only option for many students on campus who are seeking counseling, and so I think it’s important that we reaffirm our commitment to those resources and ensure that students aren’t waiting to seek help.”

The Regents announced the creation of a new, permanent committee chaired by University Regent Michael Behm (D) called The University of Michigan-Flint and the University of Michigan-Dearborn Committee. The committee will receive reports and data on the finances, enrollment, student success, diversity and other factors regarding the Flint and Dearborn campuses. It will also report regularly to the board and meet with both campus chancellors.

“After holding town halls and each of us (The Regents) having meetings with different stakeholders of the two campuses, we feel it’s important to establish this standing committee,” Behm said. 

The board approved several construction projects to update facilities and infrastructure on campus. One approved resolution is a $145 million addition to the Bob and Betty Beyster Building to expand facilities for the computer science program and provide a new location for the School of Information. Other approved resolutions include a $4.8-million renovation of Hutchins’ Hall Auditorium 100, and a $39-million design for the proposed Dean Road Transportation Facility to provide the infrastructure for bus transportation equipment.

Bernstein commented on the resolutions to expand the Bob and Betty Beyster Building and construct the Dean Road Transportation Facility, saying that future capital projects should line up with the University’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. 

“For every major capital project, I’d like to see U-M’s architecture, engineering and construction team … provide a total life cycle analysis for a net-zero building,” Bernstein said. “What it will demonstrate is while the cost of a net-neutral building is probably larger up front, the longer-term cost of that building … is competitive or very likely cheaper.”

In a statement released shortly after the meeting, the Climate Action Movement praised the decision to freeze future fossil fuel investments while reiterating their demand for full divestment from fossil fuel companies.

“While this is a major victory for the fossil fuel divestment movement, it is only the first step,” the statement reads. “It is not enough to refrain from making additional divestments—the University must commit to divest the $1 billion it currently has invested in the fossil fuel industry.” 

At the conclusion of the Board of Regents meeting, 15 public commenters had the opportunity to directly address University of Michigan administrators. Eleven of the comments touched upon issues of University climate policy. The remainder spoke about a lack of affordable housing, support for international students and equity across all three U-M campuses. 

Rackham student Akash Shah, co-director of Climate Blue, read from the letter the organization sent to the board and Schlissel last week reflecting on experiences from the 25th United Nations’ meeting of the Conference of Parties and recommending carbon neutrality by 2030. Shah called for the University to recognize the global impact it has on climate change.  

“As a citizen of Kenya and India, I can personally attest to the disproportionate effect of climate change on the global south, and U-M needs to reiterate its global commitment through local action,” Shah said.

LSA senior Henry Schnaidt, part of Climate Action Movement, urged the board to make the endowment investments more transparent and to publicly acknowledge its social and political implications. He said community input is necessary in all investment decisions.

“Currently, the only way to determine where our endowment is invested is by meticulously poring over reading minutes,” Schnaidt said. “To increase transparency and accountability, we call on the University to make all endowment investments and records public.” 

Melissa Duhaime, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and co-founder of Faculty Advocates for Climate Teams, asked in coordination with CAM for the University to achieve full divestment from fossil fuel companies by Earth Day 2020. Duhaime indicated the urgency of divestment by referencing other universities that have committed to or will be voting on fossil divestment, including the University of California system and Georgetown University.

“Divestment from fossil fuels is no longer a radical move,” Duhaime said. “It is increasingly mainstream … It’s no longer a matter of whether university endowments will be fossil free, the question is when, and when will University of Michigan?”

LSA sophomore Laura VanKoughnett, member of CAM, called for larger student representation in decisions made by the board by changing the location of board meetings.

“One critical step to demonstrating your commitment to hearing student voices is moving the regents meeting to the Union where it was held until 2018,” VanKoughnett said. “The Union is open now, there’s no excuse for it not to be an accessible place on campus.” 

Public commenters also focused on the disparities among the three University campuses. LSA sophomore Molly Macleod with the One University Campaign focused on her experience as a low-income student and how she relies on the Go Blue Guarantee. This initiative is solely for the Ann Arbor campus and covers at least the cost of tuition and mandatory University fees assessed each semester for students who financially qualify. 

Macleod highlighted the necessity for the University’s Flint and Dearborn campuses to have the same opportunity she did to be able to afford their college tuition.

“The students at U-M Flint and U-M Dearborn are made up of mostly working class students who have to work several jobs while studying, just to keep themselves afloat, and yet there is no support system like that of the Go Blue Guarantee for either of those campuses,” Macleod said. “If we want to increase student success and student enrollment in Flint and Dearborn, we need to support these students.”

Taubman student Joel Batterman, member of the Climate and Housing Coalition expressed concerns and frustration among University graduate students about unaffordable housing in Ann Arbor. He also said University Human Resources has refused to discuss GEO’s housing or climate platform, stating that their concerns are not mandatory, but permissive subjects of bargaining. 

“In a recent bargaining session where graduate students made the case for salary increases to reflect the cost of rent, University HR responded with these words: ‘Nothing says graduate students have to live in Ann Arbor,’” Batterman said. 

According to Batterman, HR has also threatened not to negotiate over salary and benefits until the subjects of climate and housing are dropped entirely from the Coalition’s platform.

“Perhaps the University leadership needs to be reminded that this institution ultimately answers to a more fundamental mandate, that of a public institution, dedicated to serve the public good,” Batterman said.

Reporter Arjun Thakkar can be reached at arjunt@umich.edu and reporter Parnia Mazhar can be reached at parniam@umich.edu