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Maine's Unity College a Leader in "Fossil Free" Movement
12/11/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

An energetic student movement has swept the country over the past month to raise the collective consciousness about climate change. But this time students aren't just talking about it. They're pressuring the administrations of large and small colleges and universities to divest their multi-million and billion dollar endowments from fossil fuels. "Fossil-free" campaigns are now underway at more than 180 campuses around the country. And as Susan Sharon reports, one of the leaders of the movement is Unity College in Unity, Maine.

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The campus of Unity College, which has become a leader in a growing movement to get colleges to stop investing in fossil fuels.

Unity College had a "coming out" party of sorts when its president, Stephen Mulkey, joined author and environmentalist Bill McKibben of 350.org on a national campaign stop at a packed State Theatre in Portland last month.

350.org is a climate advocacy group whose latest initative is to get college campuses to pull the plug on fossil fuel investments. McKibben compares it to a David and Goliath struggle.

But if the oil and gas industry is the giant, than Unity College, with fewer than 1,000 students, is surely the underdog. And President Mulkey was there to announce what Unity's board of trustees had voted to do one week earlier: stop profitting from fossil fuel investments. "I'd like to point out that they voted unanimously to do this," he said, to applause.

Unity 1A month later, Mulkey (left), who insists that students call him Stephen, is in his office in a remodeled chicken barn being interviewed about what divestment means for Unity. Wearing a knit sweater and hiking boots, he looks more like the environmental scientist he was trained to be rather than a college president.

He says Unity had actually made the decision to limit its investments in coal, oil and gas about four years ago. But the next big step was to alter the endowment portfolio even more: going from about five percent worth of investments in fossil fuels to less than one percent. It was an idea he personally brought to his board.

"The thing that carried the day was the ethical stance," he says. "We are an environmental college. We've adopted sustainability science, as framed by the U.S. National Academy, as the framework for our entire academic programming, including the humanities. So it's a no-brainer for us to do this, you could say."

That doesn't mean there was not some initial resistance or caution expressed by a couple of board members, who are, after all, responsible for the financial well-being of the school. Board member Margot Kelley says it's clear that divesting from fossil fuels will mean a smaller return on the portfolio, at least in the near future. She says the other concern raised was whether Unity's action could make a difference.

"If the difference is a gesture, is this a gesture that is an important gesture to make?" she asks rhetorically. "And so I think that part of what people had to do - all of us - was to get our heads around the idea that, in the short term, it is okay to make a little bit less money off of the investments, and also, even if it turns out that this is a gesture, it's a gesture that needs to be made."

Recently, a group of University of New Hampshire students presented a petition with more than 1,000 signatures to President Mark Huddleston asking for divestment from fossil fuels. Sophomore Fiona Gettinger says students want a meeting with him to discuss the matter by the end of January.

"This, right now, this is our legacy and so we really need the administration to consider the long-term well-being of students instead of short-term profits," she says.

Later, Huddleston released a statement to the Portsmouth Herald saying, "Those who would seek to limit the scope of foundation investments should introduce themselves to the current UNH students who would have their financial aid suspended as a result of such actions, and ask them how they feel about such a policy."

"If I could say anything to other presidents it would be: 'Don't dismiss this out of hand," Unity College's Mulkey says. "You do not want your college or university to be on the wrong side of this issue.'"

Unity 5President Mulkey says it's only a matter of time before action is demanded on climate change. At Unity, students are already figuring out their next steps. Senior Matt Dyer (left) says they may not make a large dent in the profits of the oil and gas industry, but they could do something else.

"We need to keep up this momentum," Dyer says. "We need to raise this awareness, and I think 2013 is that year where we're going to realize that we're heading down the wrong road. We see the solution and we need to go for that."

So far, Unity and Hampshire College in Massachusetts are the only two schools with firm divestiture commitments. But a spokesman for 350.org says other schools are close. And he expects the number of active campaigns to grow.

Among those looking to take on the issue: Bowdoin, Bates and Colby in Maine. Unity President Stephen Mulkey says he's received calls from student organizers at all three.

Photos by Susan Sharon.



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