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McGill seeks funding for study of responsible investment practices

Divest McGill questions process and motives of study

On January 6, the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) of McGill’s Board of Governors (BoG) submitted an application to the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF) for funding to “commission a study on a range of socially responsible investment practices.”

“The study is supposed to compile the best practices of socially responsible investments for similar institutions, like other universities in the world [and] in North America, and other corporations,” Courtney Ayukawa, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) president and member of CAMSR, told The Daily. This will provide McGill with a basis to proceed with its investments in a more socially responsible way.

Updated last May, CAMSR’s terms of reference now mandate it to proactively meet at least once a year to make recommendations to the BoG on its investments. The first such meeting was held on October 30, where CAMSR made the decision to go ahead with the study. The application was submitted two months later.

“I am extremely pessimistic about this process. I think it’s just a way to appease campaigns that are fighting for something that is really important to them and to quiet them down.”

According to McGill’s Secretary-General Stephen Strople, whose office was responsible for spearheading the application process, the committee “did a scope of the study, what it actually was that we wanted the study to do, and then we met with the director of the [Office of Sustainability] to talk about whether the SPF would be open to funding [it].” Afterwards, they compiled the application.

“You could say we are slow, but we are slow because we don’t have the expertise and we have to do a lot of research and figuring things out as we go, because this is new territory for the committee,” Strople said in an interview with The Daily.

Strople was confident that the SPF would fund the project. “If this is not something the SPF can fund, then I would find it quite surprising,” he said.

However, some members of the McGill community questioned the assumption that the study is an appropriate use of SPF funds. SSMU VP External and Divest McGill member Amina Moustaqim-Barrette expressed worry over the impact of the study on the group’s fossil fuel divestment campaign.

“The funds were originally there for the McGill community to use them for sustainability projects,” Moustaqim-Barrette told The Daily. “I don’t think it would be SPF funds put to good use, because who knows what will come out of this research or how it will affect future divestment campaigns.”

Indeed, Strople remarked that divestment is not an “immediate direct outcome of the study.”

Victor Frankel, another Divest McGill member, expressed concern over the unclear scope of the study.

“I think the commissioning of this research report could be an excellent use of SPF funds if its conclusions are applied to McGill’s investment practices, but there is a lack of clarity on the scope of this and the extent to which actionable steps will be taken by the [BoG] from the recommendations of this report,” Frankel told The Daily.

Moustaqim-Barrette also argued that the study might be a way to silence the Divest McGill campaign and delay action.

“I am extremely pessimistic about this process. I think it’s just a way to appease campaigns that are fighting for something that is really important to them and to quiet them down,” she said. “The administration needs to revise a lot of the ways it does things.”

For Frankel, a similar study should have been conducted much earlier, when Divest McGill first presented its case for divestment to the BoG in 2013.

“It is a step that could have, and should have, been taken two years ago when Divest McGill first submitted the first research report to the [BoG],” said Frankel.

“We want McGill to manage its endowment responsibly – it is there to fund the university – but when McGill’s investments contradict its mission and abuse human rights, it’s time to invest in something else,” added Frankel. For Divest McGill, the University’s choice to invest in 35 of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies goes against McGill’s mission statement to “provid[e] service to society,” as well as CAMSR’s new terms of reference, which include grave environmental damage as a criterion for social injury caused by companies.

On February 2, Divest McGill will be re-submitting a divestment petition to CAMSR, two years after its first attempt. The group also plans to “work actively with other social justice and environmental groups to address the drivers of climate change,” according to Frankel.

“Addressing this geo-political, economic, engineering, and ecological challenge is a complex and daunting task,” added Frankel. “We’re in, for life.”