Students vote “yes” to divest from coal

By Claire Everett

A majority of students voted “yes” to divest University endowment funds from coal in an online referendum question last week.

UIUC Beyond Coal, an organization that is sponsored by the environmental organization Sierra Club, posed the sole referendum question on the ballot and released the results Friday. To get the referendum question on the ballot, UIUC Beyond Coal representatives collected more than 4,000 signatures. In the referendum ballot, out of the 2,020 people who voted, 1,730 students said they wanted the University endowment to divest.

“We basically use this as an opportunity to say that we have the support of the students,” said Drew O’Bryan, co-president of UIUC Beyond Coal and junior in LAS. “It’s tough to get into the University committees and give your thoughts and opinions, so now we can move forward.”

University endowment funds are typically kept private, but Peter Newman, senior assistant vice president for treasury operations, said in an email the University has an active endowment pool of $1.81 billion. He said about $5.1 million, representing .28 percent of total holdings, is invested in the “Filthy Fifteen,” which are the largest coal companies in the U.S.

He noted that $4.2 million of that is invested through passive index funds, meaning they are indirectly invested in coal companies.

O’Bryan said the next step was getting support from the University Senates Conference, which represents all three campuses in the University of Illinois system.

“We want to bring it to the senate with students from all three campuses, then they can advise other committees to pass it,” O’Bryan said. “Once that’s done, then we’d potentially have enough to get the Board of Trustees to vote on it.”

Peter Whitney, co-president of UIUC Beyond Coal and junior in ACES, said the referendum contributed to their overall goal for the semester to have individual meetings with members of the Board of Trustees.

“Everything this year has built toward getting those meetings so we can actually talk and open a serious conversation between the board about divestment, what their perspective is and what needs to happen,” Whitney said.

O’Bryan said the 1,730 students who voted “yes” out of the nearly 43,400 students enrolled at the University is an accurate representation of the student population.

“A 5 percent turnout is pretty good when it’s a one-vote ballot with no direct effect on students while they were voting for it,” O’Bryan said.

Whitney said UIUC Beyond Coal is fighting for people who are directly affected by coal daily.

“We’re acting in solidarity with people living in frontline communities who are facing the effects of the coal industry every day,” Whitney said. “We, as students, are trying to use the pedestal of our esteemed University to create a social stigma against coal mining and utility industry.”

Claire can be reached at [email protected]