Two major wins for Divest Mt. A have been met with a pledge by the university’s President to review the school’s investment policies
Recent months have provided cause for celebration among supporters of divestment, a movement that seeks to rid institutions like universities of their investments in the fossil fuel industry. The University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, and most recently the University of Ottawa are among a group of universities that have recently made a commitment to divest.
In January, the Faculty Council voted 91% in favour of recommending divestment to Mount Allison’s Board of Regents. A similar motion passed the school’s Senate in early February with 86% support.
“Mt. A usually prides itself on being innovative,” said Dr. Krista Johnston, a professor and Faculty Council Executive member. “This is an instance where so many people have gone before Mt. A that we’re really… in the back of the pack at this point.”
Dr. Johnston was responsible for introducing the motion created by Divest MTA to the Faculty Council in late January. The Faculty Council is a forum which allows Mount Allison faculty to discuss issues relevant to their work. The motion read as follows:
“Be it resolved that the Mount Allison Faculty Council endorses the students of Divest MTA and calls on the Board of Regents to immediately commit to divestment of the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies from the endowment fund, with the goal of achieving full fossil fuel divestment within the next five fiscal years.”
Endowment funds are collections of financial assets, typically donated to the university, that are invested and expended to fund university activities. In Mt. A’s 2021 fiscal year, 45% of endowment expenditures were directed at financial aid and 40% at academic departments and the library. More detailed information about Mt. A’s endowment funds, which amount to approximately $215 million, can be found at mta.ca in the annual financial report.
According to the Mt. A website, “Of the 69 Canadian universities reporting on endowment funds, Mount Allison has the second-largest endowment fund per student at nearly $100,000, the next closest being over $55,000, and the largest when small universities federated with larger universities are excluded. It also has the 23rd largest endowment fund overall.”
The motion was received with resounding support, and passed with 91% of the Council voting in its favour. Johnston was pleased with the result, noting that Divest MTA presented the motion well and made it clear that their work has been “carefully researched [and] that there’s years of cumulative research that has gone into their work.”
In a move designed to further increase the pressure on Mt. A’s administration, Divest MTA began a campaign targeting the support of alumni. In late January, the group began asking alumni to pledge to donate to the school, but only on the condition that Mt. A decides to divest. According to the Divest MTA Instagram page, the school is “missing out on more than $16,525 in donations by not divesting.”
“With student organizing, a lot of times the administration takes the strategy of waiting on organizers to graduate, they hope that we’ll forget about it,” said Divest MTA member Helen Yao. “There is power in showing that we are consistent, that generations of students are pushing for the same thing.”
This was not the last that Mt. A had heard from Divest MTA recently; February 8 saw a similar motion introduced at a meeting of the university’s Senate, chaired by President Boudreau and populated largely with teaching staff. Among the authorities wielded by the Senate as prescribed in the Mount Allison University Act is the ability “to make recommendations to the Board on any matter of interest to the University.”
Affecting the use of this authority was where Divest MTA had set their sights for this meeting, and introduced a new motion:
“Senate advises the Board of Regents to commit immediately to divestment of the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies from the endowment fund, with the goal of achieving full fossil fuel divestment within the next five fiscal years.”
Prior to the reading of the motion, Dr. Jean-Paul Boudreau made his first public statement regarding the divestment movement, which was entered into the minutes and can be read on the President’s page on the school’s website.
Boudreau’s statement signals support for continued reduction of the school’s climate impacts and included an announcement that a “review of our investment policy, including an assessment of options and timeline for a Mount Allison divestment strategy” was underway.
This marked a departure from the administration’s traditional stance, which according to Yao, has ranged from disinterested to combative.
“There has been a lot of conflict between divest and the upper admin… there’s always a heavy pushback against divestment on their part but we think that the members of the board have changed over the years.”
The Argosy reached out to the President for further comments on divestment, but was directed to Boudreau’s public statement.
Presenting the motion on behalf of Divest MTA was Dr. Barb Clayton, who made clear the school’s stake in climate-related issues. “The mission of this university commits Mt. A ‘to the development of the next generation of researchers, creative artists, and leaders,’” said Clayton. “Because climate change represents the greatest known danger to the wellbeing of the next generation, Mt. A must take into account this risk to itself and its students and do what it can to fight climate change if it is to fulfill its own mission.”
Clayton continued: “Ongoing investment in the fossil fuel economy is not only environmentally irresponsible, and therefore morally hazardous, it has also become financially irresponsible. Based on studies by major investment firms… there is emerging consensus that, when done prudently, fossil free funds outperform their non-divested counterparts.”
Divest MTA was also present at the senate meeting, where Yao cogently defended the motion’s merit. “We have chosen to focus on divestment because when we’re looking at fossil fuel industry, we’re looking at fossil fuel corporations that are linked to 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 and that is only 100 corporations.”
“In the past, Mount Allison has managed to divest from industries such as tobacco, and historically divestment has been a successful campaign that individual institutions have used to put pressure on industries that have committed documented social harm,” Yao later observed.
Not all voices spoke in support of the motion at the meeting of the Senate. Bill Evans, the representative of the Federated Alumni, saw the motion as too specific and argued that divestment may not be feasible for Mt. A.
“This is the problem with doing something on principle,” said Evans. “Because it would be much easier to just say to the board ‘I think you should do this because it sounds good to me’… and you would feel good about doing that. Then the board would have to figure out ‘Okay, how do we go about this?’”
“I would support a motion that says something, again more aspirational, more general, and leaving it up to the people who have the responsibility to act on it,” the Senator concluded.
After much deliberation, the motion was put to a vote and passed with the support of 86% of the Senate.
In an email, Yao called the Senate’s decision a “hard-fought victory” for Divest MTA and admitted that “We [Divest MTA] never imagined we’d even get this far in the first place. We thought it would take years for us to even bring a motion to Senate.”
However, Yao did not leave the meeting of the Senate with a great deal of confidence that divestment will materialize.
“We have reason to expect the BoR will ’look into’ divestment, and then regurgitate the same arguments they have given us and claim that after their ‘examination,’ divestment is not feasible,” wrote Yao.
“In my opinion, the current makeup of key individuals responsible for exploring paths to divestment are those who viewed student organizing with contempt and worked relentlessly against divestment for years. I don’t think we have any reason to trust that they will commit to divestment or have our best interests at heart.”
Dr. Johnston is more optimistic. “The motion is really well crafted… there’s some really clear direction,” said Johnston. “They [Divest MTA] have some good ideas about how to go forward and they have some expertise on their side.”
“I am hopeful,” Johnston concluded.