Commentary, Opinion

A case against divestment

On Oct. 10, McGill’s administration held a soirée in celebration of the McGill Sustainability Projects Fund’s (SPF) 10th anniversary. Since its creation, the fund has sponsored a variety of projects related to campus sustainability, ranging from mental health campaigns to climate change sensibilisation. The existence of the SPF, however, does not prevent student activists on campus from drawing attention to the university’s more deep-seated problems, such as its continued financial investment in the fossil-fuel industry. Indeed, climate activists on campus argue that, despite McGill’s claims to support sustainability, the university is not doing enough as an institution toward accomplishing that goal. While it might be true that McGill’s administration could improve upon its sustainability efforts, one must keep in mind that it is the students, and not the institution, who possess the power and bear the responsibility to exert change. 

Student activists on campus, including environmental groups such as Divest McGill, advocate for the university to adopt more aggressive measures of ensuring social and environmental sustainability, such as removing fossil fuel investments from McGill’s $1.68 billion endowment. These activist groups point out that the university exists as a public institution. As such, the public can reasonably demand the university to tackle issues of public interest rather than simply concerning itself with academic matters. 

Presently, however, McGill’s publicly-funded budget can barely cover its expenses. In 2018, the institution accumulated an operational deficit of $24 million, even with larger-than-anticipated provincial and federal grants. Importantly, this deficit was achieved by doing nothing more than paying the salaries of workers and maintaining the university’s crumbling infrastructure. The school is not expected to have a budget surplus until 2023. When an institution of higher learning runs out of money to finance the teaching of its students and the maintenance of its buildings, addressing environmental issues becomes a luxury.

Despite McGill’s clear budget limitations, Divest McGill asserts that there are investment opportunities other than fossil fuel companies that are both lucrative and environmentally friendly. Their claim is weakened, however, by their admission that they are by no means specialists in investment, and thus would be unable to predict the exact financial repercussions of divestment. While activist groups such as Divest McGill raise important points about sustainability and climate change, their advocacy may lead to unforeseen, but concrete, damages to the university’s finances, and by extension harm the already lacking budget of McGill. 

It is the students, and not the administration, who bear the responsibility of tackling sustainability. Environmental activists at McGill seem to think that actions are worthless without institutional support; yet in countless cases, institutional change follows individual actions. 

The SPF was founded in November 2009 by the school’s three student associations: The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), the Macdonald Campus Student Society (MCSS) and McGill’s Post Graduate Student’s Society (PGSS). A referendum was held, and the vast majority of students voted, individually, for the creation of a fund for sustainability funded by students. Today, it distributes around $1 million per year, half of which comes from students, in an effort to create a more sustainable campus. 

While it is often easy to point out the McGill administration’s apparent apathy towards sustainability issues, one must remember that the university’s primary mandate is to provide quality education. Students, on the other hand, possess ample means to tackle the issue of sustainability, and should be careful not to underestimate the impact of their individual actions.

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