Divestment is not “symbolic,” it’s necessary

Following McGill’s most recent refusal to divest, tenured McGill professor Gregory Mikkelson has resigned from his position. Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier defended the university’s decision to remain invested in the fossil fuel industry, stating that the university’s commitment to decarbonization would be more valuable than a “symbolic” divestment from fossil fuels. Although most people cannot afford to make as bold a gesture as Mikkelson, everyone should try and align their actions with their values, including the McGill administration. By willfully ignoring and dismissing climate change research of tenured professors at their institution, the McGill administration has sent a clear message that they do not intend on following through with their supposed commitment to sustainability. The administration has an extensive history acting “symbolically rather than practically,” and students, alumni, and faculty deserve better.

In her response to Mikkelson’s departure, Fortier defended McGill’s commitment to reduce its overall carbon footprint rather than fully divest. While Mikkelson has characterized divestment as a clear, substantive step to take, in contrast to the university’s complex and unclear goal of decarbonization, Fortier’s comments include labeling divestment a “symbolic” gesture. As a professor of chemistry and esteemed academic, it is unlikely that Fortier is unaware of the reality that divestment is one of the most substantial institutional actions to combat climate change. With countless scientific reports that McGill scholars produce on climate change, Fortier’s denial of the effects of continued fossil fuel investment leaves students questioning why the university is ignoring evidence. Fortier’s dismissal of Mikkelson’s resignation shows disrespect for a professor who contributed deeply to McGill’s intellectual community and to the lives of his students. The university’s response follows from a long trend of McGill overlooking staff recommendations. Last year, McGill’s failure to hear professors’ recommendations on the importance of divestment led to two professors resigning from the Board of Governors.

Even if divestment was merely a symbolic action, Fortier’s contention that symbolism is unimportant does not hold. For example, the previous men’s varsity team name symbolized the continued oppression of Indigenous peoples. Although getting rid of the name was by definition a symbolic action, the change has had tangible consequences for many members of the McGill community.  Further, the James McGill statue that greets McGill visitors at the Roddick Gates symbolizes McGill’s damaging colonial history and legacy of slavery. These symbols have direct and tangible consequences for the marginalized communities they affect.

“Further, the James McGill statue that greets McGill visitors at the Roddick Gates symbolizes McGill’s damaging colonial history and legacy of slavery. These symbols have direct and tangible consequences for the marginalized communities they affect.”

In a variety of areas, McGill’s administration has built a reputation for itself in which it opts to act in a way that is symbolically significant while shifting the real responsibility of substantive action to other student activist groups as well as university faculty and staff. When Indigenous students spoke out against the continued use of a racial slur as a mascot for the men’s varsity teams, which made them feel unsafe on campus, McGill took years to even consider removing the name. Even more disappointing is the fact that the burden of petitioning for change and explaining the harmful nature of the name fell on Indigenous students. A new name has still not been chosen. Similarly, when McGill abruptly cut its eating disorder program, former Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President (VP) Student Life Sophia Esterle took on the burden of supporting students and created the eating disorder support and resource centre. This year, McGill also cut funding for student note-takers who provided course notes to students with disabilities, again representing McGill’s mismanagement of financial resources.  

Finally, in the Art History department, a new course is running this semester called “James McGill was a slave owner,” by Dr. Charmaine Nelson. This course is just another instance of McGill professors trying to illuminate the problems that the school refuses to address. Rather than simply allowing its employees to elaborate on the university’s overtly problematic legacy of racism, McGill should own up to the reality of its history.

Students and faculty deserve an administration with a level of institutional awareness that recognizes their needs, appreciates their efforts, and heeds their counsel. McGill must reconsider its distribution of resources: Investments in fossil fuels should be focused on paying note-takers for their labour, providing improved healthcare services and acknowledging faculty research and initiatives with concrete actions. Mikkelson’s resignation was one of many instances of students and staff taking self-sacrificing measures just to be heard on campus. 

The McGill community has only ever asked the administration to step up to its role as a leader of the institution, and the administration’s failure to do so has consistently shifted work onto students and staff who are already overburdened.

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