Group asks for president Boudreau’s stance on Divest MTA, divestment on the investment committee agenda and an opportunity to present concerns to the Board of Regents
On the morning of Nov. 5, ten members of Divest MTA sat in the MASU conference room waiting for their first meeting with the new university president.
President Boudreau entered the room with the University’s vice president of finance and administration, the chair of the board of regents, the chair of the investment committee and the financial controller.
As Divest MTA organizer Hanna Longard said in her opening remarks at the meeting, “Divest MTA is a student-led political group asking our university to remove its investments from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies.”
Longard noted that her summary and much of their presentation was designed to get Boudreau “up to speed.” The other members of the University administration who were present have sat in meetings with Divest or witnessed their actions in previous years.
According to Longard, when members of Divest approached Boudreau at his installation celebration, the president “was resistant to even minimally engage with [them] in [that] setting.” However, he did agree to a meeting with Divest, and the group then sent him an email which led to the meeting at hand.
The meeting was student-led, with Divest members presenting on topics like the history of the interactions between Divest MTA and the administration and what steps the group is specifically asking of the University this year.
While the group was careful to specify that what motivates their desire for divestment are moral and environmental factors, they presented possible economic benefits and strategies to appeal to the University.
Longard said that for years Divest MTA had heard, “It’s just not that simple, we can’t just divest, it’s more complicated than that,” from the University. In this meeting, they addressed that criticism: “We want to tell you that we see what you mean when you say it’s complicated – we’ve seen it all along – but we believe our role as students is to pressure you to find the route to divestment which does in fact exist.”
The University’s $180 million endowment is currently split amongst 11 to 14 mutual funds and investment managers. Longard said that an argument against divestment has previously been that “Since we are only giving each investment manager a portion of the endowment for a specific mutual fund, we are not giving each investment manager enough money to specify asks.”
Longard suggested that the University, while they are already facing restructuring as they enter financial crisis mode in response to dropping enrolment, could “switch to a centralized investment manager. By doing this you would be able to negotiate a cheaper per cent to have the money managed and you would be able to acquire a more sophisticated portfolio that operates at the institutional level with the diversification you so highly emphasize in the endowment policy.”
Longard also mentioned that Divest had spoken with some investment managers about investment profiles with ethical mandates for this meeting.
Longard closed her pitch with the final potential benefit for the University: “Divesting would give you something to market, something to be proud of. You would be a public institution with complex fiduciary duty that is not just scraping by but is standing up for social and moral ideals.” Longard noted that this reputation could also increase enrolment.
Divest member Adrian Kiva then addressed Boudreau specifically, saying, “We’re here today because we inherited a mess from the people who came before us, in terms of the climate of this planet, and we are trying do what we can to mitigate and fix that. In some ways, you are here today because you inherited a bit of a mess from [past University presidents] who didn’t divest. We know that climate change is not going to go away – neither is Divest MTA.”
In response to their presentation, Boudreau thanked the students for their engagement, saying “I think this stands well for the education we’re providing you.”
“I thank you for multiple years of engagement on this issue,” said Boudreau. “The University has also taken a lot of action, a lot of steps in recent years and I think it’s really important for me to say thank you to you for drawing our attention to a number of really important issues which this University has taken action on.… I think it’s important to acknowledge that your engagement has led to action on the part of the University. I don’t know if that’s been made clear before, so I wanted to make it clear today.”
After the meeting, Longard verified that this was the first time Divest’s influence on the University’s engagement with sustainability had been acknowledged and certainly the first time that they had been thanked.
To speak directly to the issue of divestment, Boudreau turned to Ron Outerbridge, the chair of the Board of Regents, saying, “This is ultimately about a governance issue right.… We have a board chair who is responsible for the governance of the board, just to segue.” At this point, Divest member Amelia MacDougall-Fleming interjected to clarify the group’s action items.
Divest’s action items for the University were as follows: They asked that Boudreau take a public stance on Divest MTA by the last day of classes this semester; that the investment committee put divestment on the agenda at the next investment committee meeting; that Divest MTA be allowed to give a presentation and to present a reconsidered stance on Divest to the Board of Regents at the open meeting in February; and that the board of regents commit to completely divesting from the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies within five years of their original commitment.
Outerbridge responded to the presentation, emphasizing that divestment is only one of many ways to address climate change, echoing an earlier statement from Boudreau where he referenced individual “behavioural changes” as something we can all do in response to climate change. Later in the meeting, Robert Inglis, the vice president finance and administration, also voiced his concern about necessary behavioural changes.
In response to the action items, Outerbridge said, “I think in the past putting an option in front and looking for immediate reaction is, for us, difficult because we have to go through a process and get the whole board involved with it as well, so my commitment after this meeting is … it will be brought up on the agenda at the next board meeting.”
Dan Nowlan, the investment committee chair, said that he and the committee agreed to fulfill Divest’s request to present at the next investment committee meeting on Dec. 5. After the meeting, Longard noted that this was the first acknowledgement of the email Divest had sent the investment committee earlier in the semester with that request.
After several more comments from the administration about working on smaller projects in collaboration with Divest to make the University community more sustainable, Divest member Catherine Turnbull said, “All of us are very aware that there are many different ways to tackle the climate crisis and the reason that we’re here with Divest … is because we think this is a viable way for institutions to do something that individuals can’t do alone.”
Outerbridge said that he did not know how corporations would respond to divestment or if divestment was the best way to tackle climate change. “I know climate change is caused by emission and I wonder – even from a divest group we focus on production versus other industries that are maybe larger polluters – what’s the best way to attack this change,” Outerbridge said.
Inglis then asked the students whether they see divestment as the solution because of the “political response” or because they believe it will change the corporations.
Turnbull said both. “We know that divestment works to take the social license away from large industries or regimes.… It is a political and social movement, but it is also a very tangible financial one. That’s what we saw with apartheid; that’s what we saw with the tobacco industry.”
Longard asked the administration if they had a response to her earlier proposal of transitioning to a centralized investment manager. Inglis and Nowlan did not commit to any changes but Inglis noted his appreciation for the suggestions and ideas because he said it was the first time he had seen that.
Turnbull said that, while this may have been the first time that Divest had suggested this particular financial pathway, it was “frustrating that the students have to spend our time doing that when I think in fact it should be the job of the investment committee to look into options.… If we can make this the business of our next meeting with the investment committee that would be great.”
Longard closed the meeting by reiterating the group’s action items and reminding the University that Divest is coming to them because they believe that “It is not entirely on our generation to make these changes; we want institutions supporting us.”
Disclaimer: Catherine Turnbull and Amelia MacDougall-Fleming are currently employed by the Argosy. Views expressed in this article are their own, and do not reflect the position of the Argosy.