Most of the time, McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier is absent from the day-to-day activities of students. A year ago, students would have been surprised to receive direct emails from her with anything other than updates on the most recent Board of Governors (BoG) meetings. Yet in the span of a month, Fortier has sent two emails to the McGill community. The content of these emails addressed issues that concern McGill students directly—namely, fossil fuel divestment and the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Although the administration has not, by any means, sided with the students in these emails, it is apparent that the university is having to respond to issues that it would not have raised of its own volition. Student activism is, it seems, paying off—even if it is not in the most ideal way.
One of the emails was in response to the failure of the online ratification of the motion in support of the BDS movement, while the other was in response to the BoG’s decision regarding the university’s divestment from fossil fuels. One of the unintended consequences of sending out these emails was that it reinvigorated the student groups on either side of the debate.
With these two emails, it is apparent that students have a great deal of power to draw attention to an issue. By placing fires beneath the administration, whether in the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) or elsewhere, students can force the university to respond to new issues. While this is not, by any means, a drastic change, it is indicative of the way that students may take advantage of the tensions that arise in the corporatization of the university.
These emails have also raised the question of the role that Fortier has made for herself on campus. In a period marked by debate regarding the corporatization of the university campus, the role of the principal is harder for students to grasp. The principal is the figurehead of the university, but within an academic setting it is unclear as to whether this role entails working like a chief executive officer as well. The principal is responsible for, and to, the university as a whole. Yet in taking a side on these issues, the university comes down against a certain portion of the student body who are actively fighting for BDS and divestment. In so doing, the university shows itself to be out of touch with what affects students.
The university is well within its rights to decide whether or not to divest; however, in Fortier’s most recent email, and particularly following the email on BDS, the university comes across as attempting to avoid the subject entirely. The irony of this contradiction cannot be understated. In the email, Fortier explains the university’s overall commitment to sustainability. Although this is certainly evident in the steps the university has taken to improve the sustainability of food and dining services, among other things, a response to not divesting by proclaiming commitment to sustainability comes across as contradictory. Fortier should have specified what efforts the university is and will be taking to help the environment, if divestment is not its preferred course of action.
It is apparent that these emails are not only addressed to the student community, but also to alumni and potential donors. In allaying the concerns of potential financial backers, however, the university has placed itself in an untenable position. On one hand, they had to take the time to respond to a report that was written and delivered by Divest McGill. On the other, the university has to respond to something brought forward by students as though students are not part of the picture. This sets the university on a collision course between its various stakeholders, with a clear imbalance towards those with deeper pockets.
Although emails are unable to provide insight as to the exact decision-making process of the upper administration, their frequency this semester is suggestive of a shift of some sort. While this may remain unclear, this semester may yet be looked back upon as a turning point in the mentality of students towards not only the administration, but their own position as activists on campus. For better or for worse, students use forums such as the General Assembly (GA) and the BoG to voice concerns and attempt to enact change. If the McGill administration shifts its communication to be more direct without also becoming more explanatory, the administration comes across as insensitive to the concerns of its students.