BAR HARBOR — In March, College of the Atlantic completed the process of dropping fossil fuel investments from its endowment portfolio, according to school officials.
The small school on Mount Desert Island, long known for its green focus, seemingly has become the first college or university in the country to end its investment in fossil fuel due to climate change concerns. Earlier this year, Maine’s Unity College in western Waldo County became the first U.S. college or university to begin the process of divestment.
Divestment came rapidly at College of the Atlantic, just a couple of weeks after second-year student Lucas Burdick first organized a petition asking the administration to consider the action. Within a week of beginning the petition drive, Burdick had three-quarters of the college signed onto the effort.
In the past year, Burdick and friends had been attending meetings of the investment committee, and they knew COA had divested from tobacco companies and Exxon-Mobile in the past. Burdick also knew that COA, which consistently has been ranked one of the greenest colleges in the U.S., would feel some pressure if it didn’t act, as Unity College already had voted to divest.
“I think that the administration and the students both want to hold onto that ideal of the college,” Burdick said.
COA President Darron Collins said he was proud of the way students and college officials collaborated on this issue. While the college’s investment in fossil fuels was small, the decision of whether or not to divest was an ethical question that the school couldn’t ignore, he said.
“We talked through that this was part of a larger social movement, not unlike divesting from companies related to apartheid,” said Collins.
The rapid pace of divestment has even taken Unity College officials by surprise. Even as late as March 22, Unity College was putting out a press release saying it was the only college that was actually in the process of divesting, rather than planning to divest. Unity has divested all but some 2 percent of the fossil fuel portion of its portfolio, and that took some doing, said Mark Tardif, communications director at the college.
Tardif said he doesn’t understand how COA could have divested so quickly, and he hopes the college’s figures will be made public.
“When we looked at COA, we were scratching our heads,” he said.
So far, four small New England colleges have taken steps toward divestment; the other two are Sterling College in Vermont and Hampshire College in Massachusetts.
But that’s about to change, said Jamie Henn, communications director for 350.org, an organization leading protest efforts against policies they say promote climate change. In October 2012, there were little more than a dozen groups on U.S. campuses organizing for divestment; now there are 300, including within the UMaine system.
“It’s really exciting. This represents a new wave of student activism,” Henn said.
Divestment is seen by its advocates as having a far more reaching effect than mere dollars and cents, said Burdick. To him, divesting is a way to send a signal to fossil-fuel-based companies that the old way of doing business isn’t going to have the same level of public support in the future.
It’s also a way to heighten attention towards the dangers of climate change, he said.
“It says that we care about this and we are going to put our money where our mouth is,” Burdick said.