Last spring, students at the University of Montana approved a referendum that called on the UM Foundation to divest from fossil fuels – and students backed it by 80 percent.

In September, the board of trustees at the UM Foundation, the fundraising arm of the institution, decided against divesting – in a unanimous vote.

This year, Reinvest Montana, the campus group calling for the university to join the international movement to stop investments in fossil fuels and redirect money to "environmentally and socially responsible enterprises," is more committed than ever.

"It has made us buckle down and become frustrated, angry, determined, passionate," said Simon Dykstra, co-president of Reinvest Montana, in an interview last week. "... Our core is stronger now than it ever has been."

Reinvest students see the foundation as inaccessible to them and lacking transparency, and they plan to continue taking actions that demonstrate their commitment to change. Seven or eight members make up the core group, but at least 200 show up to planned actions.

In November, the group took ribbons to President Royce Engstrom's office where people wrote down the things they had to lose in the face of climate change. One student named homes in the Bitterroot Valley endangered by wildfires.

Later this month, Reinvest Montana plans to hold a wedding ceremony tying the knot between the UM Foundation and the fossil fuel industry. 

"It is symbolic," said Jess Moore, co-president of Reinvest Montana. "And it's forcing institutions that have power to take a stand on climate change, and that is going to contribute to a larger movement."

If the UM Foundation's board of trustees is married to anything, though, it's devoted to its mission to "provide the best possible returns for the University of Montana," said Melissa Wilson, vice president for marketing and communications at the UM Foundation.

"They take that goal seriously and feel that, to do so, they must have freedom in their investment strategies," Wilson said. "They don't feel it's their role to use the endowment for social or political activism."

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At the end of the 2015 fiscal year, the UM Foundation's endowment was at $172.8 million, with roughly 8 percent to 10 percent of the money invested in "energy," Wilson said.

"That can encompass fossil fuel companies as well as alternative energy companies, like wind or solar," said Wilson, who provided information via email and an interview.

The exact amount invested in fossil fuels is difficult to identify for a variety of reasons, including the different types of companies conglomerates hold, she said.

The foundation and students have different perspectives on the significance of divesting.

As Wilson sees it, even if as many as 30 colleges and universities across the country have chosen to divest so far, that's still fewer than 1 percent of the 5,300 institutions in the U.S. And the money UM invests in fossil fuels doesn't undercut its commitment to sustainability, she said.

In fact, she said, it supports conservation measures on campus as well as the students' opportunities to learn about environmental issues (see sidebar). 

"Students can get directly involved in science that's identifying problems related to climate change and developing innovative solutions to those problems," Wilson said.

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The students are indeed learning about climate change, and the generation enrolled at UM has been hearing about the issue since grade school, said the Reinvest presidents. What they've learned tells them the matter is urgent, both morally and financially.

For instance, communities in Alaska are relocating, Moore said. The moves are expensive, she said, but so is the cost of disaster relief and public services for communities hit by the effects of climate change.

"The longer we wait to address climate change, and the worse it gets, the more it's going to cost us," she said.

Both Dykstra and Moore talk about the movement in terms of their "stake" in it. Dykstra had been in an emotionally abusive relationship, and he felt dis-empowered in the relationship the same way he did in other areas of his life.

"Joining the divestment movement empowered me and made me feel like I had the ability to enact change, the kind of change I want to see in the world," he said.

Knowing the group on campus is connected to a larger national movement amplifies his feeling that he can use his social position to help those most affected by climate change – people of color, those who earn low incomes and indigenous communities, he said.

"As someone who is relatively privileged and has access to power, I should use that to get behind frontline communities and do what I can to address the crisis that's destroying their lives," Dykstra said.

Moore wants to be able to look back on her life and know she took action, even if it felt like it was already too late.

"It's really easy to feel dis-empowered because it's such a huge issue," she said.

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Still, the students are making demands of their university. In a resolution relating to divestment last spring, the Associated Students of the University of Montana urged the UM Foundation "to create ... mechanisms to incorporate student input into their decision-making process as it pertains to divestment and reinvestment."

The resolution called for student representation on the board, communication from the foundation with interested students, and open meetings.

"They've been extremely opaque toward us. Transparency has been a huge issue," Dykstra said. "It touches on the fact that students feel we have limited power to make change within the institution we uphold, the university."

At President Engstrom's recent midyear update, Moore asked if the stance against divestment, one largely against student opinion, she said, made sense given UM's need to increase enrollment. The president said divestment was an ongoing conversation, and in a state like Montana, he noted students and donors weren't all aligned on the issue.

While the percentage of colleges and universities that have chosen to divest of fossil fuels may be small, Reinvest sees the amount of dollars it represents as significant and growing.

According to Fossil Free, which bills itself as "an international network of campaigns and campaigners working toward fossil fuel divestment," the divestment effort represents $3.4 trillion to date, with faith institutions making up the largest group at 27 percent, and universities and schools accounting for some 12 percent.

Moore has read about students who are choosing an educational institution based at least partly on its stance on fossil fuels, and she knows UM has been a leader in other areas of conservation. Reinvest's divestment proposal (see sidebar for excerpt) references professor Steve Running, who shared in a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

"Students want to be in a learning environment where their opinions and their values are upheld," she said.

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Wilson said the UM Foundation is open to students, and trustees remain open to discussing their ideas, but board representation may not be realistic. The foundation places demands on trustees that students may not be able to meet in terms of financial expertise, time and fiscal responsibility, she said.

"These are very successful business people who have years of expertise and experience and time to help focus on this," Wilson said.

At the same time, she said, the group has been open to talking with the students, but the trustees researched the issue when it came before them, and at this point, they determined divestment is not the right decision for the foundation's mission to financially support UM and its students.

The students and the board of trustees disagree on the financial effect divestment would have on UM, and they may disagree on how frequently their conversations should take place, too. If energy represents 10 percent of the foundation's endowment, the board also has to manage the other 90 percent of its $172.8 million.

Dykstra, though, said another record-setting wildfire season isn't going to wait for the foundation.

"The time to act is now," Dykstra said. "It's an ongoing problem. The earlier we act, the better the outlook is for the future."

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