On February 8, McGill’s Board of Governors held its once-a-semester Community Session. The session allows community members to raise questions and have them answered by members of the board. This semester’s session saw five questions asked on a variety of topics including divestment, affordability of food on campus, and funding for mental health services.
The Board of Governors is the university’s highest governing body, and they have the final authority over the conduct of all affairs at the university. Maryse Bertrand, Chair of the Board, explained that members must look out for the best interests of McGill while ensuring that “McGill remains here in the future for 200 years.” The board is composed of 25 voting members and two non-voting student members.
The first question was asked by Naomi Pastrana Mankovitz, an undergraduate nursing student. Her question focused on the urgency of divestment: “Why is the immediate and transparent divestment of the endowment from the top 200 fossil fuels companies not more seriously entertained as an important issue for the Board?” She explained further that McGill’s decision to continue funding pipelines runs contradictory to the education and research of students and faculty. As a nursing student, Mankovitz was able to learn about the harms fossil fuel emissions and climate change would have on human health and she finds it disheartening to know her university doesn’t support that knowledge with its actions.
The Board responded that it “will review the University’s Social Responsibility Investment practices in 2025 and it may take further actions” in two years, but that before then, it will focus on implementing its 2020 action plan. Bertrand explained that in 2020, the Board decided they needed to focus on decarbonizing because “removing the carbon from the air is the main problem.” She also said the next meeting will not include a vote on divestment as there is “too much work to do before that,” and it cannot be rushed. However, whether McGill can accelerate the timeline will be on the agenda for the next quarter.
During the session Mankovitz stated that according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the steps outlined in McGill’s decarbonization plan are not enough as they do not require divestment from the worst contributors to climate change. She followed up by requesting to look at the research the Board used for deciding on decarbonization and which group or individual recommended decarbonization as the best plan. Due to time, there was no response given.
The second question was asked by another student, Emily Hardie, with a similar focus on divestment. She asked, “how is the Board truly ensuring a sustainable future for McGill students, faculty, and staff?” Hardie explained that because the Board has chosen to focus on decarbonization instead of full divestment like other universities such as Harvard, Oxford, Concordia, “McGill is behind the times” and is “actively destroying our future.” She concluded by asking if the topic be discussed in the next Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) meeting.
Bertrand stated the topic of divestment will not be discussed in the next CAMSR meeting, instead being discussed internally and then deciding when it will be appropriate to bring up. Bertrand then dedicated the rest of the time to explain that many of the universities who have allegedly divested have only divested partially; she cited Harvard as one example of a school that only divested from coal and simply used the word “divestment” as a way to gain positive notoriety. However, John McCall MacBain, Chancellor of McGill, fact-checked this claim and was able to cite sources that Harvard had divested entirely. There was no time for a follow-up to this point or to question where Bertrand had received this false information.
Affordability of Food on Campus
As reported in the Daily, students are struggling to afford food on campus, leading to the development of eating disorders and reducing their academic ability. Zahur Ashrafuzzaman, a McGill student, stated, “unlike other universities, McGill refuses to subsidize its cafeteria prices. Also unlike other universities, McGill refuses to monetarily support soup kitchen organizations on campus such as Midnight Kitchen, which is funded entirely by limited student fees.” They asked what action McGill will take in order to stop its students from going hungry and if they will move the budget away from investments in harmful fossil fuels and start helping students.
The Chair of the Board responded by explaining that many of these issues are not in the purview of the Board as it only focuses on budgeting and subsidizing. However, she also explained the Board does not have the ability to subsidize meal options on campus easily, as the university does not receive any money from the government for this purpose leaving it entirely reliant on student fees and philanthropy, which most often goes towards other causes the philanthropist is passionate about. Bertrand was able to cite the development of the new dining hall model as a possible solution to some of these problems. McGill is working on developing a new All-You-Care-to-Eat model for its meal plans. Ashrafuzzama continued to question how this may not be an all-encompassing solution. They asked about how the Board will ensure that the mislabelling of Halal, allergens, and Kosher food will stop as well as if this new model meets the dietary restrictions of all. Furthermore, they asked why it has been developed without consultation with students.
The Board replied that with the new model, “students will not have to worry, they can eat what they want” without having to budget meal plan dollars. They also explained the model is not yet set in stone, and it is still in the “creation phase.” They also promised consultations are ongoing with students in residence.
Mental Health Services
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened students’ mental health. McGill students have reported long wait times and inconsistent, infrequent access to McGill mental health services. Student Sophia Lenz asked given these circumstances, “why has more funding not been allocated to mental health services? How can we update these to better support students who have lived through the collective trauma of the pandemic?”
Lenz referenced the tragic suicides that occurred in 2019 at University of Toronto, explaining that a similar mental health crisis is unfolding at McGill now: “will McGill wait for tragedy to happen? Or will it do something preventatively?”
The Board explained that while there has been a clear, increased demand for mental health services, the university can not replace a health care system. They also described that the McGill Wellness Hub does not focus on crisis intervention or care, nor long term management of mental health conditions: “Best practice in the discipline is to separate the acute management of crisis situations from subsequent, ongoing management of student mental health, since these specialties are very different.” The Board explained that students in crisis are managed by the Dean of Students Office until they are referred to emergency services in the community or then transferred to the Wellness Hub.
The Board also said that students in need of “specialist care and longer-term management of mental health conditions” must use dedicated facilities and resources that are found in the broader community: the university “will never be able to be a provider of everything” and “will never be able to provide a response to every single need.” The Wellness Hub serves to “provide goal-directed, episodic care for a broad range of situations.”
Lenz asked a follow-up regarding potential issues with seeking mental health resources in the “broader community” such as language barriers, high costs – especially for students who are not Quebec residents or who lack insurance – and facing stigma. She also mentioned the Quebec health care system is crumbling. The board responded by explaining that McGill “can be a bridge” to community resources.
The final question was brought up by Alex Bluck Foster, who asked if the Board will propose a timeline for requiring all of its members to be democratically elected. Only eight out of 25 members are democratically elected. Foster explained this lack of democracy is evident in a number of issues where there has been clear student support and the board has ignored or directly opposed these issues, recently opposing calls for divestment, the unionisation of Professors of Law, and the Palestinian Solidarity Policy.
Bertrand stated that she was not aware of some of the aforementioned issues and believed they were “not part of the Board.” She explained that the non-elected members bring expertise to various topics and provide insight to different solutions. The Board is focused on the long term and often reaches majority consensus when deciding, so the vote of one person has very little power.
Students who wanted to attend this meeting had to request the link from the secretariat in advance. Those who requested were provided an unlisted YouTube livestream, which has now been deleted. Zahur Ashrafuzzama added to their question, “these meetings remain largely inaccessible to the broader McGill community.” This community session is the only opportunity for students to consult with the highest governing body of McGill, and this was the first session to take place since October 2021. Despite the infrequency and importance of this session, it was limited to only five minutes per question every semester. Due to the small amount of time allocated, there was little opportunity for students to ask follow-up or clarifying questions. Students who tried to ask follow up questions were cut-off in the interest of sticking to the 25 minute schedule.