A Word with Professors on Divestment and Resignation

Despite pressure from student group Divest McGill, McGill has failed to withdraw its substantial investments from the fossil fuel industry. In addition to the continuous work of student activists, the resignations of Professors Derek Nystrom and Darin Barney from the Board of Governors last April, as well as Greg Mikkelson’s January resignation from his long-held, tenured position at the University, have contributed to a recent explosion of media attention on the issue of divestment.  

 The Bull & Bear sat down with Professor Derek Nystrom, Professor Darin Barney, and former Professor Greg Mikkelson to talk about these recent events, gain further insights into their decisions, and discuss the importance of professors’ involvement in issues like divestment, which pertain first and foremost to students. 

 

Divestment in Context 

The Board of Governors’ Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) advised against divestment in 2013 and 2016, and the Board twice accepted this recommendation. However, the McGill Senate’s 2018 resolution in support of divestment sparked hopes that the Board might act differently this time. But when the Board again referred the matter of divestment to CAMSR, rather than voting directly on the Senate resolution, it became clear that it was gearing up to, again, reject divestment. 

In April 2019, Professor Nystrom and Professor Barney announced their joint resignation from the Board in a National Observer article, explaining how they decided to resign knowing that the Board would most likely refuse to divest once again.

According to Nystrom and Barney, several factors led to their disillusionment with the Board. One telling detail was the Board’s failure to appoint Barney to a committee. Important work is done at this level, and a newly elected member typically adopts the committee role of their predecessor. Although his predecessor had been on CAMSR, Barney was not appointed to this committee or any others, which both Nystrom and Barney found unusual. They suggested that Barney’s previous environmental advocacy may explain why the Board kept him off committees, particularly CAMSR. 

Another reason behind these professors’ resignations had to do with the issue of “Board solidarity.” Barney explained the Board’s insistence that members publicly support its final judgments, even if they were in dissent on the matter. With the Board’s impending decision, which would likely oppose divestment, Barney and Nystrom felt they had to make a choice: remain on the Board and be forced to publicly support a decision they did not agree with, or resign. 

Those of us who do have positions of privilege need to use them effectively.

Nystrom and Barney observed that they were increasingly excluded from Board processes due to their publicly stated support of divestment. In particular, when they asked to meet with CAMSR to present their arguments and express support for the Senate resolution, the committee refused to meet with them as it began to deliberate. 

According to Nystrom, “Yes, we were activists, yes, we had a cause we were supporting but… we were there to be acting in good faith, and we just felt that we were increasingly shut out of conversations.” Understanding that their continued presence on the Board would be “empty,” Nystrom and Barney resigned. 

Sure enough, fifteen months after the Senate passed its resolution, the Board revealed its decision in December to accept CAMSR’s recommendations and continue to invest in fossil fuels. This news led Mikkelson, an expert in environmental ethics, to take even more drastic action in protest of the Board’s decision. He stepped down from his professorship at McGill after eighteen years at the school.  

 

Post-Resignation

These professors have not had any communication with the administration since they resigned. Nystrom expressed his dismay at the administration’s lack of interest in reaching out, admitting, “it was almost more disappointing that the response we got was simply an acknowledgement of our resignation, and thanks for our time on the Board, and that was it.” He added, “My sense was that once we resigned, they were like, ‘Well, good riddance.’” 

Mikkelson further referenced the administration’s unwillingness to discuss the matter. While he has not communicated with the administration, he revealed that the CBC intended to facilitate such conversations. “[The CBC] basically invited [Principal Fortier] to come join me, they said ‘let’s have a discussion.’ And if not live, then at least record an interview with the Principal. And then [the McGill administration] initially said yes, but then they basically chickened out,” Mikkelson said.

The McGill Senate has also denied activists’ attempts to revisit the Board’s decision. Senate members tried recently to motion for a conference committee, which settles disagreements between the Senate and the Board, on the matter of divestment. This motion would have been presented at the February 19 Senate meeting, but the Senate Steering Committee rejected it. Now, senators who are sympathetic to the cause of divestment are trying to determine how to move forward. 

In the wake of his resignation, Mikkelson is figuring out his next steps. While Mikkelson has mostly received supportive messages following his resignation from McGill in January, some individuals have pointed out the amount of privilege required for one to comfortably step down from a tenured position at an esteemed university. 

While Mikkelson acknowledged that not everyone could have taken the same action, he maintained that resigning was something he needed to do. “Each of us is in a position to do something; that doesn’t mean that all of us are in a position to do the same thing… and those of us who do have positions of privilege need to use them effectively,” he said. 

Barney and Nystrom were surprised, but moved, by Mikkeson’s resignation. Nystrom admitted that he was “taken aback but also very impressed, because that is a really strong stance. It’s hard to get a tenure-track job in the academic market these days, and for someone to stand on principle that strongly is quite significant.” Likewise, Barney described Mikkelson’s resignation as “a very telling symptom of the state of things surrounding this issue at McGill.” 

Unfortunately, it often falls too much on students to stand up to the administration… Professors basically just conform and obey in the face of totally unreasonable behavior.

On conversations with students, Mikkelson recalled a particularly meaningful meeting of Divest McGill immediately after the Board decision. For Mikkelson, “it was just very moving to hear [students’] expressions of anger, and deep dismay, and shame, and maybe disgust… I appreciate having been given the opportunity to be there and share reactions with them.” He deeply appreciates the support he has received from students in Divest McGill since his resignation.

Mikkelson emphasized that McGill’s investments contribute to ongoing injustices. In particular, McGill has 6.6 million dollars invested in TC Energy Corporation, which is behind the Coastal GasLink pipeline project in northern British Columbia. Currently, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are taking aggressive action against the Wet’suwet’en and their supporters as they try to prevent the construction of this natural gas pipeline. Therefore, according to Mikkelson, McGill is investing in a company “on whose behalf the Royal Mounted Canadian Police are brutalizing the Wet’suwet’en people out in B.C.” 

 

The Future of Sustainable Investment at McGill 

Going forward, the future of McGill’s investments is uncertain. Despite his resignation, Mikkelson wants to continue working with Divest McGill to advance the process of divestment. He is convinced that “it’s a question of when, not if,” and remains confident that McGill will eventually pull its investments from environmentally harmful industries. Nystrom also agrees that McGill might still divest in the future, positing that McGill will wait until more universities take action and set a precedent.

 Professor Barney, however, is more skeptical. He believes that “the Board will continue to avoid or resist divestment from fossil fuels for as long as it is feasible for it to do so.” He predicts that the Board will only act when it can no longer avoid divestment. 

Still, Nystrom, Barney, and Mikkelson feel strongly that professors have a unique responsibility to get involved in issues and engage in governance alongside their students. All three professors credit Divest McGill for organizing faculty around this matter in the first place, through the McGill Faculty and Librarians for Divestment (MFL4D). 

Mikkelson believes that “it is very important for professors to get involved in initiatives like this, and unfortunately it often falls too much on students to stand up to the administration… professors basically just conform and obey in the face of totally unreasonable behavior by the administration.” He identified professors as “a crucial but often missing link.” 

Barney highlighted that professors provide a moral example and leadership for their students. This “entails taking responsibility for conditions that our generation has created and that your generation will have to live with,” according to Barney. He believes that an “intergenerational moral commitment to students,” as well as an obligation to run the University according to its stated mission of social responsibility, drives him to continue his efforts. 

While the Board’s December decision may have undermined the principle of shared governance, professors and students remain committed to fighting for a University that will operate according to its fundamental values. Nystrom, Barney, and Mikkelson all expressed that they will continue to work with Divest McGill to support their ongoing efforts. 

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