VCU, UMW students challenge Boards to divest from big energy companies

Austin Walker
Staff Writer

University of Mary Washington Students are arrested after police clear out a sit-in in the university president’s office. Photo Courtesy of “DIVEST UMW”

Students at universities across Virginia are pushing for their respective schools to divest from businesses that are not environmentally friendly.

Following an act of civil disobedience by University of Mary Washington where students held a sit-in at the school’s Board of Visitors meeting, students at VCU are pushing for divestment from businesses that are not eco-friendly.

The Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, an organization comprised of students from multiple universities in Virginia, want schools, including VCU, to sever ties with businesses that are some of the largest consumers of fossil fuels in the state.

Diana Borkar, a freshman business foundations major at VCU, took part in the sit-in at the University of Mary Washington that began on March 25. Borkar said the protesting was a result of the Board of Visitors not listening to the student voice at UMW.

“‘Divest UMW’ has been going on for two years now,” Borkar said. “They’ve been building up their campaigning and now they’re at a point where they called on their Board of Visitors to create a subcommittee, but that’s not working out.”

Beyond that, Borkar said that protesters were met with contempt from members of the BOV for their disruption of the meeting.

According to a press release by “Divest UMW,” BOV member, Theresa Crawley claimed that climate change was a natural phenomenon, not a result of human action. She also expressed her confusion over what divestment was, and concluded the conversation by telling the students, ‘I think you’re being pests.’”

“The people who were a part of that interaction were very shaken up about it,” Borkar said. “A lot of that fight is about the student voice, not even necessarily divestment itself, because our voice as students is important.”

The UMW sit-in had been in session for 21 days, when, on April 15, two students of “Divest UMW” were arrested for trespassing following a direct order to vacate from the university’s president and subsequent police threats.

According to associate vice president for VCU Finance and Administration Pamela Currey, VCU’s investments are handled through a group of investment managers, primarily JPMorgan Chase.

“The prime directive in the investment policy is the protection of capital,” Currey said. “Number one, first and foremost, we cannot lose money. The second, given the first, is to make money.”

Currey said the policies for what is invested is handled through the university’s Board of Visitors, but they have little control over where the funding goes. She added that the office of Finance and Administration would have to go through an analytical process to even find what companies are receiving their investments.

“I can’t tell you today what level of investment we have in anything,” Currey said. “As I understand the movement, it’s to divest in the top-200 fossil fuel companies. I can’t honestly tell you how much VCU has in those top-200 companies.”

One of the concerns raised by the DivestVA group at VCU is Board of Visitors member Thomas F. Farrell II, who could have a possible conflict of interest.

Farrell is the president and CEO of Dominion Power, which is a major consumer of oil, coal and natural gas on the east coast. Farrell also serves as the BOV’s Chairman of the Finance, Budget, and Investment committee.

Currey said the level of influence a single member of the 16-member BOV has over the individual investments is negligible, and that Farrell’s position at Dominion doesn’t affect the investments made by VCU.

The VCU Office of Finance and Administration completed a review of the VCU Long-Term and Glasgow portfolios have no direct exposure to Dominion Resources, Inc., which means that VCU’s  investment portfolios do not directly own any shares of Dominion stock. Further review will have to take place to find out whether or not there is any indirect stock ownership through pooled funds that VCU puts money towards.

Currey said that the only way to influence significant change of VCU’s investments would be for students to voice their concerns to the governing bodies of the university, not engaging in acts of civil disobedience.

“That’s how you start defining the problem and making a difference,” Currey said. “You don’t do it in a day at a board meeting when they have other things scheduled.”

1 Comment

  1. Regarding this sentence in the article: "Further review will have to take place to find out whether or not there is any indirect stock ownership through pooled funds that VCU puts money towards." We completed the financial analysis on Thursday and sent information to the reporter indicating VCU's total indirect exposure in Dominion Resources is less than $90,000. I'm not sure why that didn't make it in the article. I would also like to emphasize here what Pamela Currey mentioned several times during the interview that the finance and investment teams are committed to meeting with students to begin a dialogue to better understand the issues they are interested in.

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