The University of Montana Faculty Senate passed a non-binding resolution on Thursday demanding that the school’s retirement fund divest its fossil fuel investments.
The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA), where many UM staff have investments, has approximately $13 billion invested in fossil fuel industries and about $844 million in deforestation, according to the resolution.
UM wildlife biology professor Jedediah Brodie authored the resolution after deciding to bring the topic of divestment to his place of employment as he saw other universities and governments making similar moves in recent years.
“We all need to be thinking about ways to reduce climate change, and there are personal things we can do like flying less, eating less meat, just being conscious of where our power comes from,” Brodie said. “But it turns out that one of the most effective things we can do as individuals is make sure that our retirement funds are not invested in climate destruction.”
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The resolution passed in a Zoom poll with 61% responding in favor, 22% against, and 17% abstaining.
Brodie acknowledged that TIAA offers a “socially responsible” choice for an investment plan, which he considers to be complete “greenwashing” as it includes multiple fossil fuel, chemical and deforestation companies.
“It’s pretty silly. But my sense too is even if it was a decent choice, like a truly socially responsible choice, is that really what we’re looking for?” Brodie asked.
“What if we could just get great market returns by investing in the genocide sector or the mass murder sector, would we really want to do that? Would we really want TIAA to say, ‘Well, how about here’s a genocide-free option, or a mass murder-free option? No, I would argue no, we’d want them to divest completely from those sectors,” he continued.
Brodie fielded questions from some faculty senate members before the vote. One asked if the resolution would take away UM employees’ choice to invest in fossil fuel companies through their TIAA investments.
“I assume the way this would work is they would just line item out certain companies, which actually, incidentally, is quite a small fraction of their portfolio. It’s only around 5% of their total portfolio,” Brodie said. “So you would still have the options to choose different investment strategies, just without any of the fossil fuel companies being in any of them.”
Another member pointed out that much of what TIAA manages is actually related to Vanguard, an investment adviser company, and that most of the default plans available are life-cycle plans. Brodie said that he may address that discrepancy with a future resolution for the faculty senate’s consideration.
“Are they (TIAA) going to listen to just this one resolution from this one small university? Probably not,” Brodie said. “But there are a growing number of universities that are doing these exact same kinds of resolutions.”
Several other higher education institutions around the country have passed similar resolutions, including Cornell University and several campuses with the State University of New York, according to the organization TIAA-Divest.
Also this week, Montana State University’s Faculty Senate unanimously passed a climate-related resolution recognizing climate change as “one of the most significant challenges facing Montana and the world.”
Their resolution aims to support their university’s Campus Sustainability Advisory Council to reduce MSU’s carbon footprint and encourage faculty to support curricula focusing on challenges of climate change.
“I think it’s fantastic and I think it’s so awesome that the two big public universities in Montana are leading, or helping contribute, to this societal charge towards getting away from climate destruction,” Brodie said.