UA Council votes in favor of divestment in consensus decision

Resolution cites MIT Divest petition calling on MIT to disclose and divest

The Undergraduate Association (UA) Council reached a consensus decision by voting in favor of a resolution calling upon MIT to divest from the fossil fuel industry at its April 27 meeting. All 14 council members present at the meeting voted in favor of divestment.

The resolution authored by MIT Divest writes that the Council calls on MIT to follow MIT Divest’s petition requesting that it disclose the “effectiveness of MIT’s efforts to engage on climate change issues with outside institutions” and divest its endowment within three years from companies who develop fossil fuel resources beyond the 2°C carbon emissions limit, who spread climate disinformation, or who engage in anti-climate lobbying.

UA Assistant Office on Governance Fiona Chen ’21 wrote in an email to The Tech that the consensus decision by the Council is “a policy position that represents the consensus view of the Council Representatives and their respective constituencies,” meaning the decision “is also meant to represent the undergraduate student body’s view on the topic.”

MIT Divest Co-Chair Arnav Patel ’21 and member Jess Cohen ’22 wrote in an email to The Tech that the Council’s decision “brings a lot of momentum to pushing the Institute to divest from the fossil fuel industry. It allows MIT and its student body to move toward joining the numerous universities that have already divested.” 

Chen added that, given the results of the vote, “advocating for divestment has become one of the UA’s priorities, so we have been in conversations with Divest to determine our next steps on how to leverage the consensus decision.”

The resolution cites several reasons for disclosure and divestment, writing that “climate change is an existential threat to society,” that “MIT has a duty to make sure that there is a sustainable future,” that MIT’s large endowment can be used to promote sustainability, and that “by continuing to invest in companies that develop their fossil fuel resources past the 2°C limit, MIT is complicit in their extractivism and destruction of the planet.”

UA Committee on Sustainability (UA Sustain) Co-Chair Carolina Gutierrez ’23 wrote in an email to The Tech, “The climate is an issue that students are passionate about, especially as our futures will be greatly impacted by the possibly catastrophic effects of climate change. As such, it is disappointing that MIT continues to support fossil fuel companies, who have spread climate disinformation and knowingly contributed to global warming for decades.” 

The resolution also writes that divestment would showcase MIT’s values “as a proactive institution dedicated to sustainability”, would not negatively affect MIT’s finances, and would allow MIT to invest its capital into more sustainable research. 

Additionally, the resolution writes that various academic institutions have chosen to divest and student governments at other schools have similarly urged their schools to move toward divestment.

Patel and Cohen wrote that because “many other divestment campaigns have gone to their student body government to solicit support,” MIT Divest decided to bring the resolution to the UA Council.

Patel and Cohen added that the result of the Council’s vote “has shown how much undergraduates care about the nature of our fossil fuel investments, and we are hopeful that the administration is more incentivized to act on that sentiment.”

UA Sustain Co-Chairs Kelly Wu ’22 and Gutierrez noted that the decision fits “with other actions the UA has taken on climate and sustainability” and “demonstrates student body support for strong climate action at MIT.” The UA Council previously voted to endorse the Student Sustainability Coalition’s proposal for MIT’s 2021 Climate Action Plan, which included efforts to examine the MIT Investment Management Company’s investments through an environmental, social, and governance lens. 

Additionally, UA Sustain’s Fall 2020 undergraduate sustainability survey found that about 82% of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that MIT should divest from fossil fuels.

The resolution was first presented at the March 30 Council meeting. At following meetings, MIT Divest and faculty guests discussed the advantages and disadvantages of divestment before the vote took place on April 27. Council representatives also engaged with their constituents to measure student body sentiment on divestment.

At an earlier April UA Council meeting, Professors Roberto Rigobon PhD ’97 and Jason Jay PhD ’10 presented alternatives for divestment, in the form of shareholder engagement. MIT Divest wrote a response to Rigobon and Jay’s views, arguing that divestment would make a more significant impact than engagement, particularly because shareholder activism would require large costs from MIT’s endowment. The response also stated that divestment would set a stronger example for other institutions than engagement.

Wu and Gutierrez wrote that UA Sustain “prepared informational material to distribute to students and helped councilors poll their living communities on the matter, to ensure that councilors made an informed decision that truly represented the student body.”

The UA Council consists of 19 voting members with representatives from each dorm and the Fraternities, Sororities and Independent Living Groups, as well as an off-campus student representative.

In the past, the UA Council has called on MIT to divest from companies operating in South Africa during Apartheid and from companies involved with the Sudanese government. Wu and Gutierrez wrote that “the context of these decisions is notable, and voting to endorse fossil fuel divestment was not a decision the UA takes lightly. This is a landmark decision and represents the student body’s resolute demand for stronger climate action from the MIT administration.”

MIT Divest is a student organization that engages the MIT community in topics of environmental justice, such as by organizing an alternate Climate Symposium, working with other students to advise MIT’s Climate Action Plan, and conducting a survey of faculty views on divestment. Patel and Cohen wrote that prior to MIT Divest’s efforts, Fossil Free MIT also advocated for divestment and “helped push the process through that led to” MIT’s 2015 Climate Action Plan.