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Tuition-paying students not complicit in McGill’s investment practices

Commentary/Opinion by

McGill’s endowment fund is a hot button topic. Since September alone, there has been a disruption of McGill’s Board of Governors by Divest McGill to raise awareness of sustainability, a series of open forums on sustainability, and a presentation about global growth and the environment. Many McGill students are passionately concerned with whether the university is invested in a sustainable future; groups such as Divest are convinced that McGill is not. But, even if McGill is not a proponent of sustainable development and environmental protection, it does not mean that, by paying tuition, its students are complicit in the university’s investment practices.

On July 27, Malcolm Gladwell appeared in a video for Business Insider, in which he asserted that students and their parents should view their tuition payments as an investment in the larger world, not just an investment in their own educational capital. By looking at how their universities spend their money, students can determine whether or not they are complicit in a “moral crime”—in other words, the university’s politically regressive reinvestment of their dollar. A responsible coffee drinker makes sure that their local cafe buys its beans from fair trade sources. Nowadays, fair-trade beans are a necessity for any respectable cafe. Likewise, Gladwell argued that higher education is a marketplace: If students and parents pay tuition or donate to universities that invest money in ways that “do good,” they send a message to all universities about what investment practices are acceptable. However, although students should be concerned with and inform themselves on their university’s investments, they are not responsible for them.

Regardless of whether the university itself should reevaluate its own investments, it is hard to argue that students have any complicity in them.

Aside from the subjectivity of the term ‘good,’ Gladwell’s argument relies on a number of assumptions. It makes the idea of the university, its interests, and its investments monolithic. Universities—McGill included—are made up of a number of moving, often conflicting parts, with many different interests involved. McGill, for example, has spent over $5 million on projects for the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF), but has nearly three times that amount invested in what are, according to the latest report by Alberta Oil Magazine, five of the top ten largest fossil fuel and pipeline companies. Furthermore, according to Divest McGill, these are only five of over 35 major companies in the fossil fuel industry that McGill invests in with its endowment. Although the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) gave McGill a gold star sustainability rating in September, from a perspective that dichotomizes sustainability and the fossil fuel industry, McGill is actually a net opponent of sustainability. Clearly, McGill’s investment of its money is complex, not uni-dimensional.

Gladwell assumes that students, by paying tuition, are complicit in whatever regressive investments their universities make. At McGill, this isn’t true. According to a summary of the budget released by McGill’s Office of the Budget, student tuition is collected as revenue for McGill’s operating fund—the fund that covers the daily costs of McGill—including employee salaries, student services, and various non-salary expenditures. The university is prohibited from using inter-fund transfers to move operational revenues into the endowment fund, so student tuition is never used in the university’s investments. At the same time, a non-opt-outable fee of $0.50 is charged to each student account for the SPF. The revenue that student tuition contributes to McGill is spent in part on sustainability projects, not the university’s fossil fuel investments. Regardless of whether the university itself should reevaluate its own investments, it is hard to argue that students have any complicity in them.

Gladwell has an interesting insight into the power students have on the university market, but goes too far when he implicates students and parents in a “moral crime,” at least when it comes to McGill. If students aren’t directly involved in any of the university’s investments, it is unfair to give these students any moral responsibility over a university’s investment practices. Students should be interested, engaged, and concerned, but they are not responsible. This is not to say that a college market more heavily weighted towards schools with investments in sustainability would not have an effect on McGill’s choice not to divest; however, it does mean that student tuition paid to McGill shouldn’t be considered much more than an investment in one’s own education.

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