After divestment debate, GSC reps also dispute vote count

Resolution urges freeze on MIT fossil fuel investments

6858 divestment
Nearly every seat was taken at the Graduate Student Council’s General Council meeting in 2-105 last Wednesday. GSC representatives voted sometimes with placards and sometimes with clickers.
Christelle Perrin

UPDATE TO THIS ARTICLE: Update: GSC representatives were notified May 20 that the divestment resolution did not pass. However, the resolution's backers will have another chance to bring the question to the floor. Correction: An earlier version of this article quoted a sentence that GSC representatives had previously struck from the resolution. The sentence: "It is unconscionable to finance our education with investments that materially support a path to catastrophic climate change."

Confusion over how votes should be counted has left a Graduate Student Council resolution, which urges MIT to divest its endowment from big fossil fuel companies, in limbo.

The resolution received 26 yes votes, 17 no votes, and 11 abstentions at a meeting of graduate student representatives last Wednesday.

“The resolution is adopted,” the GSC secretary said after the votes were cast, but others at the meeting objected to the way the abstentions were counted.

President John Kendall Nowocin G said that GSC officers are now reviewing the GSC constitution, GSC bylaws, and Robert’s Rules of Order to determine how to proceed.

Linking the burning of fossil fuels to climate change and its “deleterious effects on human society,” the resolution called on MIT to divest its endowment from a list of 200 coal, oil, and gas companies.

Some at the meeting asked whether divestment would result in less funding from these companies for renewable energy research at MIT and elsewhere. The resolution’s supporters argued that it probably would not. Debate was cut short due to time constraints.

The authors of the resolution, Rebecca R. Romatoski G and Patrick R. Brown G, are both members of Fossil Free MIT, whose petition for divestment has garnered more than 2500 signatures from MIT affiliates.

The group is part of a larger divestment movement that has sparked campaigns across the country. Stanford announced last week that it would not directly invest in coal-mining companies, becoming the twelfth and most prominent university to make such a move.

“I hope this resolution will further discussions on divestment with the administration and ultimately lead to a comprehensive MIT climate action plan that includes divestment,” Romatoski wrote in an email, calling divestment the “most important issue the GSC has faced” during her two years as a GSC representative for graduate students in the nuclear science and engineering department.

“Our economic system lets [the fossil fuel] industry offload the social cost of its primary waste product onto future generations,” Brown wrote, “and our political system allows it to promote disinformation and climate science denial through hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions each year.”

Nathanael C. Cox G, a representative from the civil and environmental engineering department, voted against the resolution.

“I fully agree that MIT ought to invest its endowment ethically,” Cox wrote in an email. “But I don’t think that singling out a narrow group of companies is either necessary or sufficient to achieve that goal.”

Bigyan R. Bista G from the biology department wrote that “[h]owever small the impact of MIT’s divestment from fossil fuel companies, it is the symbolism that matters in any movement.” He voted for the resolution.

The climate change crisis, Bista wrote, would have “a disproportionate effect on countries that are the least prepared to tackle it — my home country of Nepal comes to mind.”

Ross D. Collins G, from the Engineering Systems Division, agreed that the value of the resolution — and of MIT’s divestment — would be in “sending the signal.” MIT’s stature, he said, would make the difference, not the financial impact of divestment.

One point that “deserves some introspection,” Collins said, was whether it is right for someone who uses fossil fuel products every day to call for divestment.

In the end, Collins voted in favor of the resolution after polling PhD students in ESD, though he was reluctant to say that his vote was representative of opinions in his department, given the “very low response rate.”

Some students “at worst are sort of ambivalent” toward the issue and “at best unaware that it’s even going on,” Collins said.

Other representatives who said they asked for their constituents’ opinions included David S. Rolnick from the math department, Ross A. Karp G from Urban Studies and Planning, and Guy N. Evans G from MIT’s joint program with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. All three voted in favor of the resolution.

At Earth, Atmosphere, and Planetary Sciences, 54 percent of the respondents in an anonymous survey were in favor of divestment, while 35 percent were opposed, according to Ben Mandler G. Mandler is one of the two EAPS representatives, who split their votes, one for and one against.

Just before the vote, someone at the meeting asked how abstentions would be counted. Several responded, giving contradictory answers.

The vote proceeded anyway, and after then-Secretary Christopher D. Smith G said that the resolution had passed, a voter objected.

Then-President Caleb J. Waugh G said that only the yes-no ratio should be considered, to be consistent with April’s elections. Under that rule, the resolution would have passed.

But later, after the transition to the new GSC leadership, another person at the meeting said that under the GSC’s bylaws, the abstentions should effectively count as no votes.

“Unless specified otherwise in the Constitution or Bylaws, an article of legislation shall pass if a majority of those voting members present vote in its favor,” the bylaws read.

Anonymous almost 10 years ago

I have no say in this, but abstention is the absence of a vote, so I'm not sure why they would count as voting members.

If you told the abstainers that their abstentions would be counted as a no, I'm sure many of them would prefer not to be present at all.

Anonymous almost 10 years ago

According to Robert's Rules, when someone abstains from voting, that means they do NOT vote. It's a bit of an oxymoron (voting to not vote) but that's what all those weak-willed GSC representatives did. Their non-votes have no bearing on the outcome. A majority of the voters voted in favor, thus the resolution passes.

The question here, is when are the undergrads going to get their act together and pass a similar resolution?

RAM almost 10 years ago

At least, angling for grants related to fictitious global warming brings the Institute some cash. However, trying to use that fiction to deprive others of their everyday, safe, plentiful fuels(that can be burned under excellent control) must be for altruistic reasons, because no one benefits.