For 11 months, the Fossil Free VSC group has been working toward getting the Vermont State College financial board to take funds out of banking institutions that profit from climate change.
This coalition of students, faculty, and community members attended their first board meeting on March 25, 2017 and kept attending the meetings to make certain their voice was heard. It worked.
“It’s gratifying,” Castleton University philosophy professor Brendan Lalor said. “It really does feel like what we did was represent, I think correctly, a widely held opinion on the part of members of this community.”
Their original letter to the board asked for four steps: publicly divesting the fossil fuel investments, publicly moving to a green investment company, publicly moving to a bank that both could handle the size of the VSC and has a green friendly commitment, and assessing the institutions that hold the debt for the system.
They did not get all of their wishes, but Lalor said what they did get was worked on by both the committee and Fossil Free VSC.
“We came up with, together, what ultimately was maybe a better, sort of longer-ranged view about how to make progress on the very issues we care about.” he said.
According to Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges, the Board of Trustees and campus leaders have been committed to doing their part to address climate change including working with Fossil Free VSC.
“Working with Fossil Free VSC regarding various financial and investment options was informative and productive,” he said in a recent email. “As a result of that interaction, we will be adding fossil free investment options to our retirement plans and restructuring our endowment fund so that 20 percent of our investments will be fossil free.”
Spaulding noted he and the Board of Trustees was obligated to invest their funds in a way that shows thought for the future.
“We will be comparing the fossil free investments with our regular portfolio to compare performance over time and will revisit this issue down the road,” he said.
Jason Kaiser, a meteorologist and data systems administrators at the Lyndon campus of Northern Vermont University, is also a member of Fossil Free VSC. He was the only climate scientist in the room at the February meeting and to illustrate his point in his introduction, he sang the Vermont state song.
“I was driving over there in my Prius from St. Johnsbury to Montpelier,” Kaiser said in a recent phone interview, “and I was thinking, ‘what can I really do to make an impact?’”
Kaiser is a musician. For him, music is his sanity.
“When you’re listening to music, it’s been shown that your brain reacts to it differently than just talking to somebody,” he said. “I wanted to make an impact and I decided to sing the Vermont state song.”
There was no discussion beforehand, Lalor said, and he didn’t know how it was going to go.
“At first, I thought to myself, this is dicey. As an activist, I’ve been out on the street with some of these people and we sing there,” Lalor said.
“I thought it was an inspired move, but I gotta admit, I didn’t know it was going to go well.”
Castleton student Alden Krawczyk, a member of Fossil Free VSC, said the moves taken by the Board of Trustees is a step in the right direction.
He said he is hopeful that by reinvesting that 20 percent, the board will see going fossil free will not have an impact on the money and they will start to reinvest the remaining 80 percent.
“At the end of the day, it would be hard for us to call ourselves a green campus when we are benefiting off profits from companies who don’t necessarily consider the earth first,” Krawczyk said.
According to the Fossil Free VSC Facebook group, the changes should be made at the March 24 meeting of the board. Lalor said the group will keep an eye on the fund – both the 20 percent that is fossil free – and the 80 percent that is not.
“We’re happy with the success, and we don’t want to be like those guests who never leave,” he said. “I’m probably not going to press again for another couple years in part because the financial data isn’t going to be reliable. You can’t say, ‘based on the last two weeks performance, we need to go 100 percent fossil free.’ That’s not very persuasive.”
Lalor said although ideally VSC would be one 100 percent fossil free immediately, he thinks the current pace is what is realistic for the group.
“There can be change from working within the process, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “This is change from working with the process, and this is the speed at which that change can happen.”