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Sunrise MSU activists escorted from Breslin Center following fossil fuel divestment protest

A banner reading "Trustees: Divest Now" is held in MSU's Breslin center.
Sunrise MSU
Sunrise MSU members hold a protest sign at the Breslin Center on Dec. 10.

Over the weekend, a group of Michigan State University student environmental activists were told to take down protest signs and escorted out of the Breslin Center during a basketball game. It’s the second time they've been removed from a campus athletic event this year.

Sunrise MSU is a student organization pushing the Board of Trustees to withdraw its investments in fossil fuel companies and redirect them toward renewable energy sources.

Adi Kumar is a student with Sunrise MSU. He said they’re holding public demonstrations after months of trying to get the trustees’ attention.

"We've been met with pretty much just apathy, and in some cases, outright disdain for the movement," Kumar said. "The trustees ... they've not really been committed at all to the divestment campaign, and there's been pretty much no action so far on their part."

The group protested at a football game last month where staff led them out of Spartan Stadium for holding up banners, including one that read, “No Oil Money.”

Protesters also held up a banner at Saturday’s MSU men's basketball game against Brown that read, “Trustees: Divest Now.”

A sign for the Breslin Center listing what items are prohibited, including signs.
Dan Olsen
A sign for the Breslin Center listing what items are prohibited, including signs.

University policy prohibits many outside objects from being taken into its stadiums, including signs. MSU spokesperson Dan Olsen noted the policy is visible at multiple locations within the center. He said staff approached the protestors and asked them to show their tickets because they weren't in their seats.

“They were obstructing the view of others and because of their sign, we did ask them to remove the sign from the facility return to their seats, at which point they they did want to keep their sign and and left the facility themselves,” Olsen said.

Jesse Estrada White, one of the students that protested at the Breslin Center, said staff took the banner down after the protestors declined to remove it. He says staff then told them they were being removed, and security escorted them out of the stadium.

Estrada White said he knew they were going to be removed and that they don't blame the staff for doing their jobs. But he criticized the university for disregarding their message.

“Every time that sign goes up, the university wants to remove it," Estrada White said. "It just seems like anytime we come, we tell them to divest just much like the board meetings, we are shut down pretty quickly.”

Olsen said the university withdrew from its public non-renewable energy investments in 2018 and committed to avoid investing in additional non-renewable energy companies. He noted the school is contractually obligated to maintain private investments.

According to the MSU Investments Office, the school still holds close to $90 million in private fossil fuel investments as of last year.

Olsen said these commitments represent less than 2% of the total investment portfolio and the school expects these funds to decline by 2031.

"There are no plans at this point in time or discussions to change this approach to our investment strategy," Olsen said.

The Board of Trustees Investment Policy directs the board to maintain fiduciary responsibility and push for investments that will generate the "maximum return." Former Trustee Pat O'Keefe has emphasized this language and said the investment team's priority should be to generate a profit for the university and to fund programs for students.

Estrada White disagrees with this argument. He said the school had a moral and financial obligation to break its commitments and withdraw investments in fossil fuel corporations.

"You have to wonder how profitable oil companies are going to be in the long run," Estrada White said. "I would say there's a stronger fiduciary responsibility to reinvest back into sustainable energy, back into other sustainable community building operations, than there is to stay invested into fossil fuels."

According to Olsen, the university would be subject to "breach of contract" and could be vulnerable to litigation if it were to exit endowed funds before the expiration of its commitments.

The students plan to speak at this week’s trustees meeting on Dec. 16 and demand the board take action on its fossil fuel investments as a means of combating the threat of climate change.

"What they're doing is they're saying, 'We're fine watching your futures burn, because it's making us a little bit of money,'" Estrada White said. "And we're saying that's wrong."

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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