Seven members of the ‘Fossil Free VSC’ group gathered outside Castleton University’s 1787 Room on Dec. 1 shortly before entering the Vermont State Colleges Finance and Facilities Committee meeting. The tight-knit group shared hugs and friendly discussion with one another before entering the meeting.
“This is important to this committee,” J. Churchill Hindes, chairman of VSC’s finance and facilities, said during the meeting, of the group’s efforts. “It’s a rare opportunity for the committee, or the board, to truly engage in constructive dialogue with its’ constituents.”
Fossil Free VSC has been protesting TD Bank, and its investments in the Dakota Access Pipeline, since January of this year. It’s all a part of a two-pronged plan – their protests in front of the Rutland branch being the first, and getting the state college system to divest their funds from the bank as the second.
That was why they were at that meeting that day.
“Since our last meeting, there has been a number of noteworthy events,” Castleton professor Brendan Lalor said at the meeting, “including an additional leak to the Keystone Pipeline. It wasn’t the first, it was the third in a series of leaks.”
Both students and faculty joined Lalor at the meeting to make a passionate plea to the board for their cause.
Adjunct professor Beth Thompson was among them.
“It’s about the survival of the species. That’s not alarmist,” she said. “I’m just a singing teacher, but when I started doing climate activism six years ago, I read. I’m still reading. It’s pretty depressing. We need to address this.”
Thompson has been teaching for 26 years at the university level. She’s now 65.
“I’m not going to live to see 50 years hence, when these students are my age,” she said. “I think we owe them our forward thinking.”
Castleton student Collin Wofford, who also addressed the committee, is not originally from Vermont, but his fiancé is.
“The one thing that helped bring me here from all the way in Tennessee,” he said, “was that my fiancé, who’s from Vermont, used to speak very highly of it.”
His fiancé, Wofford said, said that Vermont was a progressive state, and usually the first to take steps towards the future, and the rest of the country followed. Going forward, Woffard said that both the state, and VSC, should continue what his fiancé described.
Lalor said he believes the committee was receptive to their comments, and he felt that progress was made.
“I heard back from the CFO (chief financial officer), Steve Wisloski,” Lalor said in a follow-up interview. “He’s willing to distribute our material. I haven’t heard confirmation that we have implemented the low-carbon option for the social choice investment yet, but I’m confident.”
According to Lalor, Trillium, an asset management company out of Boston that has handled fossil-free portfolios, looked over the numbers presented by the state treasurer, Beth Pearce, and found errors. This was a point of conflict at the meeting between Lalor and VSC chancellor Jeb Spaulding, who is a former state treasurer himself.
“Any thought that the treasurer cooked the numbers is, to me, offensive,” Spaulding said at the meeting, urging the members of Fossil Free VSC to be careful putting motivation onto other people.
But Lalor said he does not believe that the state treasurer had any ill intentions.
“I’m not saying that the state treasurer herself cooked up the numbers because she had an axe to grind,” he said during the follow-up interview. “She may rely on sources, which are not fair sources. I don’t think that’s any attack on her character, so much as just a reason to pause and be concerned.”
For Fossil Free VSC, their fight moves forward. The group will be meeting with the committee again on Jan. 23 to further the discussion. For Lalor, what is happening within the VSC system in regard to Fossil Free VSC is representative of something much larger.
“There are little groups that are putting pressure on banks and financial institutions,” Lalor said. “Together, the thought is, we can make a difference. Sooner or later, there will be a competition, clamoring for the dollars of those who want fossil-free investment options.”