by Rachel Ward
Dalhousie’s Board of Governors has rejected divestment, at the recommendation of its investment committee. The committee report said divesting would make no impact on climate change and in fact hurt relationships the university has with fossil fuel companies that fund research on campus.
Two faculty board members criticized the committee during the debate for not having evidence companies would pull out research funding should Dalhousie divest. Investment committee chair George McLellan said after the meeting the committee didn’t need to ask the companies.
“If we went and asked them if we divest of you, are you going to turn your back on us? I don’t think they’d say yes,” said McLellan, noting the school has various research-focused science and engineering programs. “They’ve probably got a million public relations people telling them exactly that that’s not a smart answer. But how would they vote with their feet? I think I can pretty well figure that out.”
Students and community members packed the board room, with Divest Dal members kicking it off with informal speeches. The board chair started by telling those in the room to stay quiet. Quite the opposite happened later into the discussion. After the negative vote, Divest Dal members marched out, chanting, “You follow us now.” Elaine Gibson, a law professor and board member, stood up and said over the noise, “You are being so rude right now.”
The investments in question make up 4.3 percent of the endowment fund, totalling about $20 million. The divestment movement, organized worldwide through 350.org, tries to stop institutions from investing money in the top 200 carbon-emitting companies, including BP and ExxonMobile. Here in Halifax, Divest Dal has collected 2,000 petition signatures in support of its proposal and presented three reports to the committee.
Bethany Hindmarsh, a DivestDal spokesperson, says the group will continue its work, but outside of the board.
“We’re going to stand together and make sure the university doesn’t get to claim to be a leader of sustainability,” said Hindmarsh, “without owning up to what just happened in the last hour.”
The investment committee report points to the School of Sustainability as an example of a tangible way the school is fighting climate change. It specifically highlights a partnership Dalhousie has with Total S.A., a multinational oil and gas company, which the report says helps fund research in renewable energies. Total S.A. is number 10 on the top 200 list.
Master of Science student Carla Dickson, who specializes in petroleum geology and petrophysics, spoke, in part, on behalf of Earth Sciences students at Dalhousie. That group submitted a report against divestment.
“The message that will be sent to energy companies if we renounce investment in their firms will be that Dalhousie University does not have confidence in them,” read the Earth sciences report. “This will inevitably lead to a steady decline in funding for university research and programs in many faculties and commensurate decline in career opportunities for students.”
The committee recommendations echoed the Earth Sciences students’ report multiple times. As Dalhousie President Richard Florizone said, “the harm outweighs the benefit.”
For example, both reports said federal and provincial government funding could also be jeopardized if Dalhousie turns down revenue streams. The report says government sends mixed messages on its stance on these companies. Nova Scotia, for instance, has support offshore drilling but has so far stalled on fracking.
“The IC and the university administration would have to better understand the government perspectives before it took any steps toward divestment,” said the committee report.
Instead, the board voted to offer donors options to invest their donations other than in fossil fuel companies. McLellan said in the meeting donors have told the committee they would prefer this.
The board also voted to publish annually all investments in publicly-traded companies. As of now, that information is not public knowledge.
John Baxter, a board member and English professor, said at the meeting he thought the report was respectful, yet made unsubstantiated claims. He also said he thought the report downplayed the significance of divestment. Baxter declined an interview prior to the meeting, but Hindmarsh spoke to his comments.
“When he said that a symbolic gesture and a gesture that makes an impact aren’t mutually exclusive, I think that’s right,” said Hindmarsh. “Divestment is about removing a social licence from these companies.”
Board member and professor Gibson first pushed to have the vote postponed, until the committee could answer some of its own questions. Her motion was rejected. Gibson then asked for more research on the implication of divestment. That was also voted down.
A vote yes for divestment would have made Dalhousie University the first in Canada. Divest Dal says several other universities are also debating the subject. In the United States, the board report notes, “Yale, Harvard and the University of California group of schools” have rejected divestment.
Just last month, the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom voted unanimously to divest $128-million. Dalhousie has instead opted for a compromise. It currently has an investment policy to “encourage its external investment managers to develop and enhance” assessments based on environmental, social and governance factors (ESG). This technique has been touted by the United Nations. McLellan’s investment committee report says it will continue to do so, in lieu of a full divestment. So far 39 per cent of its investment have “developed ESG policies and procedures.”
“Although the IC recommends that the Board of Governors reject divestment,” said the report, “it agrees that greenhouse gas (GHG), particularly carbon, emissions are a primary source of a great environmental risk to the world: climate change.”
The final vote count was 15 in favour of rejecting divestment, with five against. Two members abstained, including Lori MacLean, senior communications advisor for Encana Corporation, which oversees Deep Panuke oil project offshore Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia Power Inc. President and CEO Robert Hanf voted, despite the board chair asking if anyone had a conflict of interest.
When the debate and vote wrapped up, one board member said he was happy it had finished and that they could get back to board business. Divest Dal, however, has more work to do. The student union votes next week on its own divestment question, as well.