At a meeting on September 12, the Senate approved the Motion Regarding Divestment from Fossil Fuel. The motion was brought forward by Senator Gregory Mikkelson, an elected member from the Faculty of Arts, and its approval contradicts the McGill’s Board of Governors 2016 decision not to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
In 2015, Divest McGill submitted a document to the Board of Governors urging the university to divest from fossil fuels. In response, the Board of Governors Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) released a report, in which they stated that investments in fossil fuel companies did not cause social injury, as claimed by Divest McGill. The Committee concluded that the benefits of investment far outweigh the costs. The Board of Governors, McGill’s highest administrative body, endorsed CAMSR’s recommendation, and decided not to endorse divestment from fossil fuels.
Principal Suzanne Fortier began the discussion by raising the question of whether or not it was appropriate for the Senate to vote on such a motion given their academic mandate. She highlighted the bicameral system of McGill’s governing bodies and emphasized that the Board of Governors and the Senate each have very specific realms of authority.
Provost Christopher Manfredi vocalized his stance on the issue, stating: “This is a matter that is outside the authority and confidence of Senate…I’d argue that the harm is that institutional overreach by one governance body can invite institutional overreach by other governance bodies. In other words this could erode the division of authority between the Senate and the Board [of Governors].”
Despite opposition from Manfredi, the majority of senators voted in favour of expressing an opinion on divestment. Senator Mikkelson presented the motion as well as his support for its approval. He cited McGill’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2040, as well as examples of other universities that have divested from fossil fuels, and campus groups that have endorsed the motion.
In the discussion period, Vice-Principal Beauchamp explained the structure of McGill’s investment portfolio and the resulting difficulties that would arise from divestment, stating: “I think our situation is quite different from many other universities that…could invest in different companies. We have decided to work with managers… and those managers are investing in different indexes. We don’t control actually the companies in which they invest, and some of the investments we have to lock for 5-10 years and so even if tomorrow we divest, we won’t see the impact very soon.”
Despite resistance from Manfredi, and opposition from a small minority, the motion ultimately passed, much to the excitement of members of Divest McGill. Jed Lenetsky, an organizer of Divest, told the Bull & Bear in an interview: “I was expecting the decision to be a lot closer than it was based off of the administration’s opinion that this issue had been well decided by the Board of Governors. I think what this decision showed is really how out of touch the board’s decision is in terms of where the McGill community stands on this issue. I think it goes to show the difference in decision making that can occur when people are voting not only in terms of their own beliefs but also on behalf of a community which they represent.”
Though only the Board of Governors has the authority to dictate whether or not the university divests from fossil fuels, the Senate’s approval of this motion establishes their stance on the issue, and places them alongside SSMU, PGSS, and the McGill Association of University Teachers in their support of divestment from fossil fuels.