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Student want their voices heard at Divest UNF protest

Video by Nick Blank

About 25 student-activists supporting Divest UNF met at the Green under an overcast sky Thurs. April 14 to protest the UNF Foundation’s possible investment in fossil fuels. They carried signs, chanted and gave information to passers-by as they marched through through the campus toward Alumni Hall, the site of the UNF Foundation’s investment committee meeting.

Divest UNF wants the UNF Foundation to stop new spending in the top 200 coal, oil and gas companies, withdraw funds related to fossils fuels with the next five years, and to seek investment in sustainable energy. Divest UNF is an active group by holding forums, and film screenings. They almost passed a bill in the Student Government Senate that would have declared SG’s support on the matter of divestment.

The UNF Foundation receives its funding from donations and outsources $96 million to a team of money managers. The money managers invest at their discretion in a variety of industries.

In response to the protest, UNF Foundation Treasurer Shari Shuman and Executive Director Joshua Merchant greeted the students and held a discussion with them.

Shuman said the UNF Foundation’s duty is to the students. The Foundation is responsible for investing the funds donated to it in ways that best establish and maintain a portfolio that creates scholarships and fellowships for students.

She said the biggest debate around all of this is the merging of personal values with a corporate setting.

“I personally agree with each and every one of you,” Shuman said, but she told the students the actual investing of funds is out of the university’s hands.

Shuman said Perella-Weinberg, a finance firm contracted by the university to handles the Foundation’s investments.

“They [Perella-Weinberg] don’t allow that information out. They have to keep how they invest proprietary just like a patent would be for a product,” Shuman said. “We may not be [investing] in any fossil fuel companies, it’s just we don’t really know.”

Junior Fine Arts major Natalie Sassine, who lead the rally, has been a member of Divest UNF since 2014. She said the UNF Foundation’s lack of enthusiasm for divestment were reason to believe the university continues to invest in fossil fuels.

Sassine said an investment policy from 2007 showed 7.5 percent of total investment was devoted to “natural resources.”

“Though it is a non-transparent endowment, if they were not investing in fossil fuels, they would tell us,” Sassine said.

 Photo courtesy Rebecca Rodriguez
Photo courtesy Rebecca Rodriguez

The rally ended in front of Alumni Hall, where club members and protesters sang “Who’s side are you on?” and expressed their opinions on the Divest UNF movement.

Sassine said the club felt a silent protest would cultivate a better understanding with the UNF Foundation.

Natalie Holland, an active member in Divest UNF said she “wanted to show support for this student movement, to make sure the school reflects what the students want. I feel like a silent protest is the best option, I feel like it shows respect.”

“We want them to lead and learn with us,” Sassine said, but until they make a change, club members like Ashleigh Elkins believe UNF is making a statement by choosing inaction.

Elkins said that because of UNF’s focus on being an environmentally-friendly school, the UNF Foundation’s investment in fossil fuels gives off a contradictory message.

“Neutrality is taking the side of the oppressor,” Elkins said.

Sassine said Divest UNF has asked the UNF Foundation to present a “Feasibility Solution” to further analyze the cost and risk of divestment. She said the dialogue with the university can be seen as a sign of progress.

For more information or news tips, or if you see an error in this story or have any compliments or concerns, contact [email protected].

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