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Divestment forum attracts students

Students address unethical university investments
By A.V. Sherk – [email protected] – News Editor | Nov. 12, 2014 |

Divestment, a strange mash-up of words combined, defined as a diversion of invested capital, time or resources, blossoms as a watchword for student organizations as far-reaching from Stanford University to the University of Vermont and most recently, to the campus of UNC Asheville.

“Divestment is the tactic — social justice is the goal,” said Alex Buckingham, a speaker at the divestment forum last Thursday in Karpen Hall.

The UNCA Divestment Coalition, a collection of student organizations with the shared goal of divesting university funds from businesses and corporations that do not align with UNCA’s ethics, hosted the forum.

Universities remain profit-oriented businesses at their cores; they take the money allocated to them and invest it into businesses, seeking to boost their bottom-line, according to coalition members.

Without exception, universities’ foremost interests are their survival and expansion; however, students within the divestment movement question the moral ethics of investing in companies, which threaten the environment.

“Over the summer I started hearing about Harvard’s divestment movement, and my friend, who goes to Brown University, was part of a divestment movement there,” said Carolina Arias, member of UNCA’s Active Students for a Healthy Environment organization, UNCA’s International Socialist Organization and SEC Eco Reps coordinator. “When I went to the People’s Climate March, I was like, ‘Wow, we have to do something about this right now.’”

Members of the UNCA Divestment Coalition said they hope for greater transparency and environmentally conscientious decisions from the UNC Management Company Inc., which provides investment services to the UNC system of colleges.

“I want people to understand that we have no idea what we’re invested in. I personally think we are invested in fossil fuels but we do not even know and we can’t make an argument based around information that we do not have,” said Ashleigh Hillen, president of ASHE and member of UNCA’s Divestment Coalition.

The forum opened the floor to audience statements and was not without pragmatic critics.

“I’m here for moral reasons, but unfortunately the fact is that we’re not investors. You’re acting as though we’re investors and that we have some kind of connection to this money that they’re then giving to a subsidiary,” said Benjamin Schoenberg, UNCA sophomore.

“Not to say there’s anything wrong with the message. I’ve been a part of grass root movements and I think it’s a wonderful way to get people together, but getting people together doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to change anything. These companies don’t care about their moral stature in society. They care about making money.”

Arias countered with a smile and said universities cared about their reputation, which directly contributes to fundraising.

“If we can find an economic way to get these companies together and make money by investing in renewables, as opposed to a moralistic way, we’ll be able to move them in the right direction,” Schoenberg said.

One obstacle the UNCA Divestment Coalition faces, along with other student activist groups, is making progress despite cycling out members as they graduate.

“One solution is to have students participate across the years to continue the movement within the school. We try to recruit freshmen and sophomores who will stay with us through their years here. We need seniors with their experience – they know the school really well, they know administrators, they have contacts,” Arias said. “We’re hoping to build relations with alumni, because once they graduate we want them to have a sense of ownership and responsibility for the university.“

Buckingham, a student leader of the University of Vermont’s divestment campaign, said he thinks the divestment tactic should be of interest to anyone, regardless of which issues matter to them most.

“If your issue is imperialism and Obama’s new wars in the Middle East, you should also care about fossil fuel campaign. If you’re going to choose racism, the fossil fuel industry has racist functions in society. I’m a nurse. I know how to treat someone with exacerbated asthma, but how do you treat the problem that African-Americans are 50 percent more likely to have asthma and 200 percent more likely to be hospitalized by asthma? You treat that with a political movement which produces climate justice through a divestment campaign.”

On a more local front, eco-friendly businesses, such as Semprius in Henderson, exist. According to Semprius Inc.’s website they have set a new record for commercial solar module efficiency at 35.5 percent.

“If you were to attempt to move North Carolina toward divesting away from what they’re investing in right now, there are a lot of incumbent forces you would be working against,” said Stephen Holsenbeck, an audience member at the forum. “There’s a lot of chemical engineering which goes through Raleigh and NCSU, which is investing in mineral and oil companies.”

The UNCA Divestment Coalition plans to meet with UNCMC and a sustainable investment firm in the spring of 2015, according to members.

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