Getting Yorked

Divestment debacle at York U casts school in a bad light

Suspension of responsible investment committee leaves divestment recommendations in limbo
Photo: David Verbrugge

“Getting Yorked” is a whimsically grim expression too many students at Toronto’s York University find reason to use. While not easy to translate to outsiders, it conveys the general sense of being the victim of a decision, imposed from somewhere on high in the university administration, that is any combination of unfair, devastating, or in defiance of comprehension.

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Those campaigning to see the university adopt more ethical standards in its investments are the latest to have gotten thoroughly Yorked.

It came to light earlier this month that the school administration has summarily suspended the activities of its responsible investment committee.

According to an open letter signed by a majority of the members of the York University Advisory Committee on Responsible Investment, the suspension appears to be the administration’s response to the committee’s recommendation that the university divest its $400-million-plus endowment fund from weapons manufacturers and fossil fuel companies.

The university administration has yet to issue an explanation to the York community for why it suspended the responsible investment committee.

The committee’s recommendation was a (fleeting) victory for two campus groups, Fossil Free York and YU Divest, following years-long campaigns to win broad York community support for their respective proposals to divest from fossil fuels and weapons. Having been endorsed by the committee, the proposals should have been passed to the university’s vice-president of finance and Board of Governors for a final decision. Instead, they now sit in limbo.

New depths of getting Yorked

The university administration has yet to issue an explanation to the York community for why it suspended the responsible investment committee, but available details cast the move in a dubious light.

On March 3, the day the committee was set to vote on whether to recommend fossil fuel divestment, two members (including the committee chair) left the meeting abruptly, both apparently opposed to the recommendation. The York administration argues that the members’ departure ended the meeting and invalidated the vote to divest from fossil fuels that subsequently passed. (As the open letter notes, however, carrying on with the vote was fully permitted by the committee’s terms of reference.) In a subsequent communiqué to the committee, the York administration said it had been suspended “pending a full review of the functioning of the committee.”

The administration’s actions look to be an attempt to discipline the committee or to cast the committee’s procedure as flawed as a pretext to avoid having to seriously consider its (non-binding) divestment recommendations — recommendations towards which some representatives of the administration have been hostile.

If anything like this is the case, the suspension flies in the face of the very function the committee was established to carry out.

Divestment is not simply about cleansing a single institution of its ethically toxic investments or attempting to single-handedly hit offending companies’ bottom lines.

Thanks to a past campaign by faculty and students, York became one of few Canadian universities to institute a body with a mandate to respond to concerns raised by community members about the ethics of the university’s investments. Beginning in 2013, students, faculty, staff, alumni, and retirees have been able to recommend steps to the committee that the university can take to ensure that York’s investments do not contradict its highest principled commitments, in this case to social justice, sustainability, equity, and good governance.

It was these very commitments to which the proposals from YU Divest and Fossil Free York appealed. Tying both groups together is a shared conviction that the university should not profit from investments in companies and sectors of the economy engaging in the destruction of human lives, communities, and the environment required for the flourishing of life on earth. For York to continue to do so makes a mockery of its principles and the demands of its community.

The divestment imperative

York’s suspension of its responsible investment committee is especially upsetting given the larger significance and potential of divestment.

Divestment is not simply about cleansing a single institution of its ethically toxic investments or attempting to single-handedly hit offending companies’ bottom lines. A divestment victory at one institution works in concert with others. As those victories rack up, the public grows increasingly informed and critical about the practices of the targeted industries and companies, which thereby lose their social licence, their ability to carry on with business as usual. In this way, divestment asserts a right to democratic participation in economic decision-making by condemning a sector of the economy as morally unfit to continue any longer without strict regulation.

If York were to divest from weapons, it would be the first university in Canada to do so. This would send a signal to other campaigns and post-secondary institutions that divestment from arms manufacturers is a viable option and would spark a broader debate about how universities’ investment in suppliers of weapons make them complicit when states use those weapons in violation of human rights and international law.

Similarly, if York follows through on the committee’s recommendation and fully divests from fossil fuels, it would add some crucial momentum to the major victory in February when the University of Laval became the first Canadian university to commit to fully divest from fossil fuels. Victories like that are badly needed to shake up the current national context, where the Trudeau government has committed to fossil fuel projects, such as a major liquid natural gas facility in B.C. and tar sands pipelines, which threaten frontline communities and risk making Canada’s already weak climate change goals impossible to meet.

The York University administration has foreclosed these possibilities by placing Fossil Free York’s and YU Divest’s proposals in limbo. In taking suspect measures, the administration is inviting escalation from both campaigns and mobilizing harsh criticism from the York community and broader public. In the end, York might end up getting Yorked by itself.

Aaron Saad is a member of Fossil Free York and a PhD candidate in Environmental Studies at York University.

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