On Wednesday, March 23, McGill’s Board of Governors held a special meeting to discuss the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR)’s report on a submission made by the group Divest McGill in February 2015. Stuart (Kip) Cobbett, Chair of McGill’s Board of Governors, had committed to issuing a decision on the submission by the end of March 2016.
Divest McGill asked that the University divest itself of investments in fossil fuel companies – primarily oil, gas and coal – on the grounds that fossil fuels are a leading source of climate change. After a year of study and consideration, CAMSR did not recommend divestment at the present time.
CAMSR instead recommended a series of actions McGill should take relating to, among others:
- investing in renewable and alternative energy
- establishing a socially responsible investment fund option for donors
- developing and implementing environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles and guidelines for endowment investments
- supporting and initiating shareholder resolutions to encourage changes in company practices deemed inconsistent with ESG and the United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Investment (UNPRI)
The Board accepted CAMSR’s recommendations in the closed portion of its meeting. CAMSR’s full report is available online.
In a message to the McGill community, Principal Suzanne Fortier commended the members of Divest McGill “for the respectful and constructive way they engaged in this dialogue. Their presentations were thoughtful and well-prepared, and they have raised the University community’s awareness of the climate change issue. The University’s Board of Governors fully acknowledges that climate change is a serious issue, and that fossil fuel consumption contributes to climate change.”
The Board has requested that its Investment Committee prepare a report on socially responsible investment, with a target completion of December 2016. The Board also asked that the University administration conduct an audit of all current activities – teaching, research, outreach and reducing the University’s carbon footprint – relating to sustainability. The administration is to deliver this report in advance of the Board’s May 16, 2016, meeting. The CAMSR report stated that “This overview would form the basis for the Board and senior administration to work collaboratively on further integrating and expanding initiatives, consistent with the McGill mission, to create a comprehensive climate action plan.”
“Addressing climate change in a manner consistent with the University’s mission is a McGill priority,” said Principal Fortier in her message. “This is an issue to which all members of the administration are committed, and one that the Board of Governors will now include in its stewardship role.”
During the open part of the Board meeting, about 15 Divest McGill supporters entered the room, with about a dozen of them having put duct tape across their mouths and holding signs indicating they felt they had been silenced.
Cobbett said the work of Divest McGill has “moved McGill’s green initiatives in the consciousness of the Board,” which will now receive regular reports on how McGill is working to reduce its carbon footprint and how it is proceeding with the other recommendations the committee made.
Principal Fortier echoed his remarks. “I think a very important role of catalyst has been played. I want to thank the members of our community who have played the role of catalyst” in moving the University forward on these issues.
Two Board members told the visitors they had not been silenced, but indeed their voices had been listened to and were important factors in moving the Board to make the recommendations it did.
“We have got to change in every way we possibly can to be more sustainable,” said Board member Edith Zorychta. “You haven’t been silenced. You have been listened to.”
Added Board member Tina Hobday, “The dialogue and the discussion are going to continue. This is the beginning of future action.”
Board member Derek Nystrom noted, however, that the Board of Governors was the first McGill body among several to have voted against divestment.
Representatives of Divest McGill spoke at the end of the meeting to express their unhappiness with the decision and that they had not been informed of the Board meeting in advance, accusing the Board of not consulting with the community.
At Senate later in the afternoon, Cobbett and Secretary-General Stephen Strople addressed the lack of notice after a number of student senators raised the matter. “We should have posted the notice on the Secretary-General’s website,” Strople said. “I accept responsibility for that.”
Cobbett noted that it has never been Board practice to invite specific groups to its meetings and explained that Strople and his team have been extraordinarily busy in recent days, arranging a Board retreat, an executive committee meeting and the special meeting of the Board, all within a very short time frame.
“It was not done with any attempt to exclude anyone,” he said, noting later that the CAMSR report could not be released publicly until it had been received by the Board. Other factors, including the commitment to make the report public by the end of March and Cobbett’s imminent departure abroad, resulted in the Board meeting being held on March 23.
Speaking to student media after the Board meeting, Cobbett said the Secretary-General’s office are looking into why the meeting wasn’t better publicized.
Asked to comment on allegations from Divest McGill that the measures the Board adopted amount to “greenwashing,” Cobbett said, “these actions that we are recommending and that the administration will take, are not to placate anybody. They are to have the University focus much more on research that will move us away from dependency on fossil fuels. Also, they will require the University to reduce its own carbon footprint. These are all concrete steps that should have a direct impact on improving the level of greenhouse gas emission in the future. We don’t lightly recommend that the administration spend $10 million or $20 million. That is not a greenwash in any sense.”
Cobbett stressed that Divest McGill has made a difference. “They have moved the needle. Divest McGill has made a difference. I know they’re disappointed. I know they wanted us to divest, but CAMSR has come up with recommendations that we believe will make a difference.”