On September 14, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council convened for its first meeting of the year.
Socially Responsible Investment fund
Council heard a detailed presentation from Vadim di Pietro, the Chief Investment Officer of Desautels Capital Management (DCM). According to its website, DCM is “Canada’s first university-owned, student-run registered investment firm.” At Thursday’s council meeting, di Pietro discussed the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP Finance Arisha Khan’s plan to create a Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) fund for the Society, which would be managed by DCM. In essence, the SRI should ensure that a portion of SSMU’s funds is invested in sustainable, ethically-run companies.
“For one, you want to [invest in] things that are consistent with your own moral values,” said di Pietro, “but on top of that, you’re actually trying to have an impact that will […] do good for society, and for the environment.”
In a message to The Daily, Khan explained that she chose DCM to manage the SRI fund because of their student-run status,“SSMU’s accountants do not handle investments (you have to be licensed specifically for that purpose),” she wrote. “Our investment portfolio is managed by Lester Asset Management which is [an external] company. [SSMU has] no choice [but] to go with [an external] company and this way we are supporting student learning in sustainable investing and promoting it heavily at McGill.”
When asked how corporations’ ‘social responsibility’ will be determined, Khan told The Daily that SSMU’s SRI fund will use the index of a company called Sustainalytics, known as a global leader in ESG analysis. ESG refers to “environmental, social, and corporate governance,” a standard of a company’s operations concerning the range of factors that shape the impact of an investment. ESG analysis takes into account ecological sustainability, labour practices, employee diversity, and human rights, among numerous other factors.
“[Sustainalytics is] the leader in ESG analysis but with anything else investors must do their own deeper research,” explained Khan.
So how exactly will the creation of an SRI change SSMU’s investment portfolio? SSMU is constitutionally committed to “demonstrating leadership in matters of human rights, social justice, and environmental protection,” and to “[being] mindful of the direct and indirect effects that Society businesses and organizations have on their social, political, economic, and environmental surroundings.” The SSMU Sustainability Policy requires that the Society “be stewards of students’ money in an ethical manner,” and “prioritize funding to initiatives that will […] lead to considerable social and/or environmental benefit.” Finally, the Climate Change Policy mandates SSMU to “continue to avoid all investments in the fossil fuel industry.”
Despite these provisions, explained Khan, SSMU’s current investments aren’t as ‘socially responsible’ as they could be.
“Right now, we just invest in what is returning well,” Khan told The Daily. “There is no ‘positive screening’ done [to determine] how [we can] not just invest for a return but rather in companies that are doing good things and treating people and the environment right.”
Regarding the specific issue of divestment from fossil fuels, Khan commented that the above policies had not been entirely respected.
“SSMU was not divested fully [from fossil fuels] when I came in [to the position of VP Finance],” wrote Khan. “There is one pipeline company left that I submitted a request to divest from. Some of the other companies [in which SSMU invests] are sort of questionable, but […] you are limited when it comes to the Canadian landscape because most of Canada’s [wealth] is mining-related,” said Khan.
Sustainability Projects Fund
In addition to Di Pietro’s presentation, Council also heard from guest speaker Krista Houser, the administrator of McGill’s Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF). SPF was established in 2009 as a three-year pilot project funded by SSMU, the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), and the Macdonald Campus Students’ Society (MCSS). Houser explained that the SPF, which allocates funding to members of the McGill community interested in starting new sustainability-themed projects, will have to run a referendum campaign this semester to have its non-opt-outable $0.50 student fee renewed. The McGill administration already matches this fee dollar for dollar, and will continue to do so should the fee renewal pass.
Houser also announced the forthcoming creation of a “tiny stream application process,” intended to make it easier for smaller-scale projects to receive assistance from the SPF. This initiative is expected to be operational in the next few weeks.
Following the guest presentations, two motions were debated and approved. The first, a “Motion Regarding the Adoption of the Standing Rules for the 2017-2018 Legislative Council,” consisted of a series of minor modifications to Robert’s Rules of Order intended to streamline this year’s Council meetings. The motion passed after relatively little debate, with only a few minor adjustments to the proposal’s wording.
The second motion on the table, a “Motion to Change the Status of the Students’ Society Programming Network,” aimed to move the aforementioned network (known as SSPN) away from Legislative Council for ethical reasons. According to the motion’s “whereas” clauses, SSPN has historically had looser membership requirements than other committees of Council, while simultaneously providing “many more incentives for its members than other committees.” This, apparently, had been a source of tension between SSMU councillors who were part of SSPN and those who weren’t.
In order to address this problem, the motion proposed changing the three SSPN seats currently reserved for SSMU councillors into more seats for members-at-large. Additionally, it proposed that, while councillors will still be allowed to join SSPN, doing so will “not fulfill their mandate of joining a committee of Legislative Council.”
The second motion also passed with minimal debate.