By Kevin McCall
Arts & Features Writer
UNC Asheville Divest, a student-run organization on campus, calls for the school to strive toward complete divestment of any funds associated with fossil fuel.
Lindsey Nystrom, admin liaison for UNCA Divest, became interested in joining the student organization after a friend introduced them to the group.
“I just started to become friends with people in Divest, and slowly, as I learned more, I became more interested in it,” they said. “Also, it takes kind of a structural outlook on change and that’s sort of where my interests lie.”
Being one of the sustainability groups on campus, UNCA Divest commits to advocating for the end of fossil fuel-based investments by the school in order to fight for sustainability and advocate for justice.
“We just focus on fossil fuels because it kind of intertwines environmentalism and human rights,” Nystrom said.
UNCA Vice Chancellor of Budget and Finance John Pierce leads the divestment movement from an administrative standpoint, helping the school become the first in the UNC system to voluntarily take a portion of its endowment and invest it toward forms of sustainability.
“UNC Asheville is the leader,” Pierce said. “I am most proud of our students and their perseverance because this was something. Along the way, we had protests, we had all kinds of things, but we had a relationship between administration and the students where the students work with us and learn.”
Divestment is important to Pierce because it helps fight climate change, which he said reflects the university’s core values and the intellectual journey he makes along the way.
“We only have one Earth. Just on the news the other night, it was about Madagascar and a first climate-induced drought,” Pierce said. “The whole world’s leaders are now talking about climate change because it is such a serious thing.”
Ben Underwood, associate vice chancellor for advancement operations, helped facilitate the student-led divestment movement on campus in order to explore options for fossil fuel-free investments.
“Although I have a personal commitment to the cause, I had to put that in the background and really let the student passion drive this,” Underwood said. “This was about helping students realize their vision for the university.”
In April, UNCA signed the carbon commitment plan with the goal of changing the school to become carbon neutral by 2050. However, that commitment doesn’t extend to the school’s investments.
“Divestment should be part of that climate action plan. I think that’s going to be an important step for the university,” Nystrom said.
While UNCA divested 10% of its fossil fuel-based endowment, Nystrom said the intention is to further the group’s goal by eventually requesting the divestment of the other 90%, if the returns prove financially viable.
“If they deny that request, then we’ll have direct action. Protests, banner drops, student letter writing, campaigns,” they said.
Divest collaborates with other sustainability groups on campus, such as the Sunrise Movement and ASHE (active students for a healthy environment) to advocate for environmental causes.With the help of these organizations, UNCA has accomplished various forms of sustainability, such as adding solar panels and geothermal heating to the quad.
“We’re a little bit behind in terms of the way that we use our money and create community,” Nystrom said. “Harvard just divested a $42 million endowment and I think that is a much bigger step, and if we’re such a small school, we should be able to make that step too.”
Despite the recent accomplishments of divestment, the group currently struggles with maintaining its numbers. With members of Divest approaching graduation, the number of students involved with the organization could decrease.
“We need, especially younger students, to hop on board, to do the work and learn about what’s happening. Because right now, two out of three of us are going to graduate, and the other third is going to graduate in a year,” Nystrom said.
According to Nystrom, divestment creates structural and systemic change by promoting justice while advocating for environmental causes.
“The climate crisis is impending doom for everyone on the planet. But more importantly, disproportionately for certain marginalized communities and countries,” they said. “I also think that the university should be more transparent about their funds.”
Nystrom said the path forward to ending the climate crisis is more complicated than what people make it out to be, but UNCA community members can make a big change by facing those complexities head-on.
“I also think that individualism and individual actions are not the only way to combat the climate crisis. That you can make large-scale change with your community and with a community that you feel loved and connected with,” they said.