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"This is an exciting new precedent for public institutions," said Meaghan LaSala, organizer with Divest UMaine. (Image courtesy of Divest UMaine)

Setting Precedent for Public Institutions, Maine University System Pulls Funds From Fossil Fuels

Following years of student organizing, state-wide university system voted Monday to withdraw direct holdings from coal industry

Sarah Lazare

After two years of student organizing, the University of Maine state-wide system on Monday became the first public land grant institution—and first university system—in the United States to divest any of its fossil fuel holdings, in step with world-wide grassroots efforts to take on the powerful industries driving global warming.

"This is an exciting new precedent for public institutions, which must be responsible participants in broader society, which requires acknowledging their role in investing in an industry that has a track record of driving climate change and exploiting communities, disproportionately low-income and communities of color," Meaghan LaSala, organizer with Divest UMaine, told Common Dreams.

The University of Maine System Board of Trustees unanimously voted on Monday to dump all of its direct holdings from coal companies, with every trustee and several presidents speaking in favor of the measure. Students are heralding the move as an important victory, but still incomplete, as it will not impact coal stocks in co-mingled funds.

"We have to take victories as they come, but the end goal is complete fossil fuel divestment, and we will keep working towards that," Iris SanGiovanni, student at the University of Southern Maine and organizer with Divest UMaine, told Common Dreams.

Monday's vote was the product of years of campus community organizing, including presentations, research, meetings, and "persistence," explained SanGiovanni. Divest UMaine, which describes itself as a "coalition of students, staff, faculty and alumni" focused most of its organizing at the University of Maine in Orono and University of Southern Maine in Portland, but its impact was state-wide.

This is not, however, the first time that campus communities have pressed the University of Maine System to extricate itself from systems deemed unjust: in the 1980s, the system took part in nation-wide divestment from apartheid South Africa.

LaSala said the campaign aimed to build a "climate justice" consciousness. "Our responsibility is not just to talk about carbon in the atmosphere but to talk about the ways climate change itself is disproportionately impacting people in the global south and communities of color and low income communities," she explained. "We have tried to make that part of our narrative, to use the campaign to tell that story."

The win comes at a time when divestment campaigns are growing and spreading across world, with universities from South Africa to New Zealand to the Netherlands key battlegrounds. Such efforts have already resulted in numerous victories, including the agreement of over a dozen U.S. universities, the World Council of Churches, and the British Medical Association to divest. Campaigns are underway in at least 30 universities in Canada alone, according to an article published this weekend in the Vancouver Observer, which refers to the phenomenon as "divestment fever."

LaSala says that, like many other similar pushes, Divest UMaine is having conversations about what it would look like to go beyond divestment. "In the future, how do we advocate for investment in community infrastructure," LaSala asked. "How do we make investments that will help us make the transitions we need to make as society while centering the needs and leadership of people on the front-lines of climate change?"


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