Knock, knock: Gertler slams the door on fossil fuel divestment
On March 30, U of T President Meric Gertler released a 43-page report titled “Beyond Divestment: Taking Decisive Action on Climate Change”—in other words, after a three school year-long campaign, U of T 350’s call for the university to divest from the fossil fuel industry was rejected.
U of T’s decision not to divest should not come as an incredible surprise. While some universities like the University of Glasgow have fully or partially divested from fossil fuels, U of T’s Canadian peer institutions have not followed suit—UBC, the University of Calgary, Dalhousie, and most recently, McGill, have opted not to divest. McGill’s decision came roughly a week before U of T’s and proved particularly infuriating to 350 activists due to a McGill advisory brief claiming that the fossil fuel industry does not cause “ grave social injury.”
Yet, to many, Gertler’s announcement may still have come as a shock. His geography background had led to some casual speculation that he might be more environmentalist than other administrators. Despite his transcript and a recommendation from an expert ad-hoc committee that U of T should divest from at least some fossil fuel companies, the president firmly maintained the status-quo.
While the ad-hoc committee did not call for U of T to divest from fossil fuels entirely, it did call for divestment from fossil fuel companies it deemed socially injurious. It focused on companies working in tar sands and fracking industries and companies that lobby against environmentalist policy-making. Though praising the recommendation, 350 did call for Gertler to consider how all fossil fuel companies are socially injurious and how fossil fuel development affects indigenous land rights, when deciding what companies to divest from.
Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, a U of T 350 activist, expressed dismay with Gertler’s decision, saying: “The divestment campaign has the support of hundreds of faculty and alumni and thousands of students. The president’s own committee also recommended divestment. This makes the president’s decision all the more shameful, as it shows a disconnect from the broader U of T community and a disregard for the clear recommendation from his expert committee.”
Harvey-Sanchez added that Gertler made his decision based on the advice of working groups composed of unnamed members of his executive staff. She lamented his turning to these groups, which made decisions in three months, rather than following the recommendations of the visibly qualified ad-hoc committee, which researched its decision over the course of a year. She explained that over the three-year course of the divestment campaign, Gertler met with students only once and did not even give them the chance to hear and refute any arguments his advisors were making.
But 350’s critique of U of T governance goes even further. Shortly after Gertler’s decision was released, U of T 350’s Facebook page leaked images of emails in which an unknown author called for U of T’s Office of the President to be locked so that activists could not occupy the building like divestment protesters did at McGill.
Harvey-Sanchez speculated that Gertler’s decision ultimately came down to a fear of controversy. While Gertler has argued that supporting full divestment would be a breach of his fiduciary duty to U of T, Harvey-Sanchez, questioned the idea that fossil fuels represent a sound investment, citing a recent study that found U of T lost roughly $500 million over the past three years by not divesting from fossil fuels.
“[The administration] is aware that the president’s decision is inadequate,” Harvey-Sanchez argues. “We can gather dozens of groups on campus that support divestment to discuss ways to address this horrible decision…. [The administration] has good reason to close their doors.”
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