On Oct. 27, the University of Toronto (U of T) announced that it would divest from all its direct fossil fuel investments in the next 12 months, with plans to divest from all indirect investments by 2030. It also stated that it will take steps to curb more emissions than it produces to become a “climate-positive campus.” The university is the latest post-secondary institution to get on board with divestment, with Concordia and Harvard having recently made similar announcements. Yet McGill lags behind. Despite numerous performative measures and a steadfast commitment to preaching sustainability at every turn, McGill continues to operate like a business, prioritizing short-term profit above genuine concern about the future of the planet. With the climate crisis worsening with each passing day, it is increasingly important for the university to divest and take aggressive climate action––not in 10 years, but immediately. Calls for divestment are not new—in fact, they almost feel worn out. The clock is ticking for the McGill Board of Governors to divest but it might already be too late.
Rather than divesting, McGill’s response to the climate crisis prioritizes individual action, innovation, and technology. Reusable water bottles or early-stage “green tech” solutions have their merits, but are not enough on their own. The term “sustainability” has turned into a vapid buzzword, and it finds its way into many of McGill’s PR campaigns. This approach is, however, a hollow one. Band-aid sustainability efforts risk becoming a facade for meaningful climate action: Real commitment necessarily involves a thorough and immediate restructuring of systems and institutions—and that starts, but does not end, with divestment and sustainability initiatives.
For a university that places such heavy emphasis on its global standing, it is ironic that McGill shows little interest in being a leader on critical issues like climate change. McGill’s alleged commitment only manifests when it serves to benefit the university’s reputation. For example, McGill had COP26 attendees Dr. Courtney Howard and MSc. Candidate in Bioresource Engineering and Climate Mitigation William Gagnon take over their Instagram account this week. That McGill would showcase sustainability advocates while refusing to yield to student demands to remove the James McGill statue or divest from fossil fuels is a testament to this proverbial facade. Indeed, McGill cannot simultaneously ignore students’ pleas for divestment while also taking credit for the climate-conscious students who they position to represent the university favourably on the international stage.
The university’s repeated refusal to divest despite constant pressure by the student body reveals a wider structural issue. The fact that these motions continue to fail at the Board of Governors after their approval at every other level of university governance reveals a major discrepancy between students’ views on McGill’s responsibilities and the views of the board—many of whose members have backgrounds in business. Although the bureaucratization and corporate focus of post-secondary institutions is not unique to McGill, the university should nevertheless not be absolved from moral scrutiny.
Commitments to divest from various universities across Canada and the United States are necessary, especially as the window to act on climate change rapidly closes. In the context of U of T’s announcement, the choice to finally divest after years of student activism is not one that should garner applause. Divestment is long overdue for all universities—but especially those apathetic institutions that have yet to even take that first step. McGill needs to pass motions to divest, and soon, because if anything is to be taken from the “Change the Name” campaign, it is that change takes time, and time is exactly what is running out.