Vote ‘yes’ on referendum on University divestment from the coal industry

This Wednesday and Thursday, students will have the opportunity to vote on the following question: “Do you support the UI endowment removing investments in coal by year 2017?”

The University of Illinois system’s endowment, a “savings account” that it has built up over time and committed for long-term use across the three Illinois campuses, is $1.7 billion. The money in the endowment comes from large donations, major gifts and returns on investments, including investments in coal.

Many students will note that the University has committed to stop burning coal on campus by 2017, yet it continues to fund the industry — potentially investing millions of dollars.

In the past two weeks, over 4,000 University students have signed petitions to bring the discussion of our investments before the entire student body in the form of a ballot referendum. 

Thousands of students have pushed for a referendum on “divestment,” or removing investments, from coal, asserting that the impacts of coal are fundamentally incompatible with our values as a university.

The extraction of coal has led to the destruction of mountain ranges in Appalachia and productive farmland here in Illinois. While the University funds some of the most innovative crop science research in the country, it is concurrently supporting industries whose mining practices threaten water resources and take prime farmland out of production forever.

Once coal is processed, it is transported for combustion in coal-fired power plants. According to a 2010 study by the Clean Air Task Force, coal plants are responsible for 13,200 premature deaths and 9,700 hospitalizations each year. 

In the Chicago communities of Pilsen and Little Village, the same study found the operation of two coal plants resulted in 720 asthma attacks and 42 premature deaths each year.

The University of Illinois has demonstrated a commitment to a campus in which everyone feels welcomed, respected, engaged and included. While the University funds exceptional campus diversity initiatives, it profits from the disproportionate pollution of low-income communities and communities of color. 

According to a report by the NAACP, nearly 53 percent of the individuals living near failing coal plants are people of color (a figure that is higher than the 36 percent proportion of people of color in the total U.S. population, according to U.S. Census data).

The life cycle of coal ends with coal ash, combustion remnants with fewer safeguards on disposal than household garbage. Every instance of improper disposal pollutes our waterways with hazardous carcinogens and pollutes our University’s pocketbook with dirty money.

These impacts have inspired our students to push for divestment, and in this effort we are not alone. 

Our University is joined by over 300 others pushing for divestment, standing up to reaffirm that the fundamental purpose of a university is to prepare an existing generation to confront the world’s problems — not to fund the greatest of those problems.

This tactic effectively urges the University to put its money where its mouth is. It was used in the 1980s in response to university investment in South African-based companies during apartheid, and more recently, in response to universities funding tobacco companies and corporations tied to the genocide in Darfur.

In each of these campaigns, universities recognized that impacts on human life and liberty are not political issues to be avoided, but issues of humanity and morality. 

It was clear then, as it is now, that it is impossible to remain neutral in situations of injustice. Silence and inaction only serves to assist the oppressor — funding the oppressor with millions of dollars is a more obvious form of assistance.

This is the rationale behind divestment. This is why I will be voting “YES” to “DIVEST” on November 13th and 14th.

The referendum question will be sent by the University to registered students via email Wednesday morning. It may also be found on vote.illinois.edu. 

Do you support the UI endowment removing investments in coal by year 2017?

Tyler Rotche is a senior in LAS, co-president of Students for Environmental Concerns and president of UIUC Beyond Coal. He can be reached at [email protected]