Early this March, my fellow Reinvest Montana coordinator and I walked out of the University of Montana president’s office feeling belittled. Although this meeting was a new low in my interactions with UM administrators, Reinvest Montana, the University of Montana’s student-run fossil fuel divestment group, had hoped that a fresh, young President would bring a new, understanding communication to the Office. To our disappointment, his antagonism toward discussing fossil fuel divestment and problems with transparency and representation at the University of Montana follows how administration has treated me and my fellow students for years.
The University of Montana Foundation handles UM’s endowment, which consists of donations to the school. The UM President is an ex officio member of the Foundation and sets the University’s investment priorities. The Foundation invests the endowment in assets like stocks, bonds, mutual funds, hedge funds and real assets, looking to provide UM students and employees funds to work and study. The Foundation members do crucial work, but their methods damage the credibility of UM administration. The Foundation has become an almost completely non-transparent, non-responsive body, antagonistic to anyone without power who questions its methods and operation; i.e. students. Protected by its 501(c)(3) non-profit status, the Foundation refuses to release its investments and meeting minutes or allow students to meet with its members. It also recently renegotiated its operating agreement with UM to grant the Foundation more power to refuse to release documentation.
In our efforts to discuss divestment, every University avenue we pursued has resulted in dead ends and delays, despite our commitment to compromise and understanding. The Associated Students of the University of Montana, where the Foundation has doggedly referred all my communication requests, fails us. Aware of referendums passed by the student body in 2015 and 2017, in which the student body called for fossil fuel divestment with 80 and 79 percent of the vote, the ASUM President, and many members of the Senate, reasserted their commitment to divestment. However, instead of following through on rhetoric to put students first and pursue transparent administration, the ASUM leadership seems more interested in maintaining beneficial personal relationships with the very people who they pledged to hold accountable.
Meetings with interim President Sheila Stearns resulted in vague comments and delays, and meeting with the current President has shown little promise as well. Our professionalism and hopes for dialogue and compromise have not been returned with an open, listening ear.
If the University of Montana administration continues to antagonize students who seek constructive dialogue, its enrollment and morale will continue to suffer. Commitment to “leadership” means supporting students who question the powers around them, including in the University itself. UM administration: Step up. As often as possible, democratize power by forming committees that include student voices from outside ASUM, form an investment committee, give students a seat at the Foundation’s table; put some action and definitions behind those abstract concepts that pepper every speech and press release (“diversity,” “inclusion,” “transparency”) and finally, listen to the voices that criticize this institution. Recognize that we also seek the best for the University and its constituents, and invite us in for some serious, action-focused dialogue. We’re not going anywhere.