Students protest UVM board’s refusal to divest UVM millions from fossil fuels

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Stephan Toljan/ TheVermontCynic

Junior Lowell Deschenes brandishes a sign reading "Divestment is the best investment."

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At least 100 students, faculty and community members filled the final session of the February 2020 board of trustees meeting to call for UVM to divest from fossil fuels.

Students from organizations including SGA, Sunrise and Organize, a group advocating against UVM’s $27 million investment in fossil fuel companies, filled the Silver Maple Ballroom on the fourth floor of the Davis Center.

By the time the public comment period started at 2:30 p.m. at the Jan. 31 meeting, the ballroom had run out of seats, forcing students to stand or sit on the floor.

UVM Police Services officers stood at either side of the board, which sat behind a green fabric rope, separating it from the crowd of its constituents.

STEPHAN TOLJAN/TheVermontCynic
Student protesters hold hand-painted signs following the end of public comment. The group then began to sing, “Which side are you on, board? Which side are you on? Does it weigh on you at all, board? Does it weigh on you at all?”

Junior Ben Wagner on behalf of Organize addressed the board first. 

“Our University’s vision statement is ‘to be among the nation’s premier small research universities preeminent in our comprehensive commitment to liberal education, environment, health and public service,” Wagner said. “How can we make this statement while still directly investing $27 million into fossil fuel companies?”

Following Wagner’s speech, professor of geology Paul Bierman was called up to speak. 

“I’m here today to say it’s time to look again at the evidence to trust the scientists, policymakers and economists on this campus,” Bierman said. “To listen to the voices of our students who are sitting behind me here and our facility to the environmental university that we claim that we are.” 

Junior Sophie Smith, chair of SGA’s Committee on the Environment, spoke about divesting and her disappointment with the lack of action by the board. 

“In October, we were applauded for our professionalism,” Smith said. “Yet we were not met with the open dialogue that was promised to us to maintain the formal relationship we have established and the respectable image of the board.” 

Following Smith’s speech, which called on the board to divest, the protesters erupted into song. 

“What side are you on, board? Which side are you on? Does it weigh on you at all, board? Does it weigh on you at all?” the protesters sang. 

One protester, first-year Sam Peck, who is unaffiliated with Sunrise, took a seat in the middle of the board of trustees’ tables that were shaped in a “U” before Smith started speaking, silently holding up a whiteboard with a message calling on the board to divest. 

After, Board Chair David Daigle called a five-minute recess, and Peck was removed by UVM Police Services. The protesters then began to leave, still singing on their way out.

STEPHAN TOLJAN/TheVermontCynic
First-year Sam Peck is escorted out of the room by a UVM Police Services officer while Tim Bilodeau, UVM chief of police, looks on. Peck was removed because he refused to move from his seat in the middle of the trustees.

The recess did not last, and the meeting resumed as the protesters began to leave. 

But the protesters did not leave the room for long. 

Several minutes later, Sunrise group members stepped back into the room, standing silently in uniform with signs calling out the trustees by name. 

At the conclusion of the meeting, Robert Brennan, chair of the Investment Committee,  refused to comment on board business or the student protesters. 

Additionally, Daigle declined to comment when asked by Cynic reporters.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:49 p.m. Feb. 2, to clarify that protestor Sam Peck, a first-year, was not a member of the Sunrise movement.