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New England News

Students Seek Vote On UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment

umassunionprotest.jpg
WAMC
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The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees met for the final time today under the administration of Governor Deval Patrick.  The meeting on the flagship Amherst campus drew union protestors and student activists.

Students who want the University of Massachusetts to pull all financial investments from fossil fuel companies demanded trustees schedule a vote on the issue at the next scheduled board meeting in April. Two students addressed the trustees, while another 50 waited in the lobby outside the meeting room, barred from entering because of fire code regulations, according to officials.

Kristie Herman, of the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, said it is a social justice issue.

" We relate strongly to the chants we've heard in the streets of  'I can't breath.' While Eric Garner died from a police choke hold, people in communities like Holyoke, Springfield, Fall River and beyond are gasping for air because of pollution. It is no mistake these communities are low income and people of color."

The group has been working for two years to have UMass divest its $650 million endowment from fossil fuel-related companies.  More than 4,000 students have signed a petition and the movement has been endorsed by student government organizations on the Amherst campus.

University President Robert Caret said a socially responsible investment advisory committee is looking into the issue. He did not say when the committee would make a report for trustees to act on.

"It is not as simple as saying we are just going to divest. It is a complex issue," said Caret. " There are many many issues that need to be addressed there, so even if all of us in our hearts would like to divest, you just don't  do that."

UMass employee unions brought complaints about the slow pace of contract talks to Wednesday’s meeting of the trustees. About a dozen people held signs reading “UMass Unions United to Protect Our Rights.”

Joanne Martone, co-chair of the 1,500 member Professional Staff Union, complained her union is being wrongly maligned by the administration as obstructionists at the bargaining table.

" We have taken great strides to reach an agreement. It is management that is taking teeny tiny steps toward a settlement."

Randall Phillis, president of the Massachusetts Society of Professors,said his union and the administration have a tentative deal on a new contract, but the state legislature must vote to fund it, and he fears that might not happen now because of the state’s budget deficit.

Caret said the administration has reached contract settlements with 15 unions and is still in negotiation with 18 bargaining units.

The chairman of the board of trustees, Henry Thomas, began the meeting by lauding the outgoing governor.

" Governor Deval Patrick has been a gift to UMass and to all of higher education."

 Under Patrick, state funding for UMass increased by $100 million in the last two years allowing the university to freeze student fees and tuition for two consecutive years. A satellite campus opened in Springfield this year.

Caret also praised Patrick and saw it as a positive sign that Governor-elect Charlie Baker had visited the Amherst campus just last week.

"  I think he is going to be a good supporter of higher education and the University of Massachusetts."

       Caret, Thomas and UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan are members of Baker’s transition committee.

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