EDITORIALS | McGill’s insistence on ‘political neutrality’ is an insult to student activism

On December 12, 2017, the Board of Governors (BoG) — McGill’s highest authority governing over academic, business, and financial affairs — met to discuss the possibility of changing the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR)’s “terms of reference.” These terms of reference outline CAMSR’s responsibilities, mandate, and composition. The meeting was interrupted by representatives from Divest McGill, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and Students for Palestinian Human Rights protesting the proposed amendment requiring CAMSR to “refrain from using the University’s resources to advance social or political causes.” The unabashed attempts by the BoG to remove social responsibility from its mandate is an insult to student activism, and is indicative of a larger problem: McGill’s investments fail to prioritize student input and are instead dictated by corporate interest.

The proposed amendment would nullify the BoG’s social responsibility mandate, and reveals contempt for the work of divestment campaigns on campus aimed at ensuring that the university spends tuition money ethically. Claiming that this change is for the sake of political neutrality is hypocritical — McGill’s investments in fossil fuels and real estate companies such as RE/MAX, which capitalises on illegal Israeli settlements on the occupied Palestinian West Bank, already advance social and political causes. The administration is well aware that the university’s investments advance certain interests: in 1985, McGill divested from its assets in South Africa in protest of apartheid, and in 2007 it divested from tobacco companies, as CAMSR itself acknowledged “the indisputable social injury caused by tobacco.” To follow the precedent set by these decisions, McGill has a duty to divest from fossil fuels as well as from investments that endorse the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The amendment contains language evocative of ‘apoliticism’ and ‘neutrality,’ and is a badly disguised attempt by McGill to preserve its political agenda, while ignoring the work and demands of student activists.

The amendment also contains a proposal to decrease the frequency of revisions to the mandate. Currently, the board revises the mandate every three years. The proposal would increase it to five, thus limiting opportunities for student input, and jeopardizing student organisations’ institutional memory. Because most undergraduate students spend four years at McGill, the amendment to the terms of the BoG would only be reconsidered once, or never at all, per student turnover. As it is, student representation is minimal on the BoG. Out of 25 voting members, only two are students: the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) President, and the Post-Graduate Students’ Society of McGill University (PGSS) Secretary-General. In other words, the 27,526 undergraduate students and the 9,704 graduate students of the university only have one representative each.

We must fight for greater power in the decision-making process, and more direct student consultation. We cannot let McGill eliminate ethics for the sake of an impossible “political neutrality,” and sacrifice student issues for corporate interests. McGill must divest, in addition to creating easily accessible channels of student consultation, such as open forums, thus granting decision making power.