Students call on UVic to divest from fossil fuels

50-student protest targets University of Victoria's board of governors

UVic Board of Governors president and vice-chancellor Jamie Cassels

UVic Board of Governors president and vice-chancellor Jamie Cassels

After three years, the University of Victoria’s board of governors still has yet to “pick a side” on the issue of divestment from fossil fuels.

Despite a 50-student rally outside the University Centre on Tuesday – asking board members to choose between continuing to invest in fossil fuels or put that same money toward clean energy solutions – the board said it respected the UVic Foundation’s decision not to divest at this time.

According to a university spokesperson, board chair Erich Mohr told protestors the board shared their concern about climate change and referenced UVic’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and address the issue through research, academic programs and campus operations. However, the board ultimately left the decision in the hands of the UVic Foundation, a separate legal entity that manages the university’s endowments, including its investment in fossil fuels.

The foundation is responsible for investing approximately $390 million in funds donated to the university. The endowments go toward scholarships, bursaries and academic and research support.

“We’ve done a lot of research, we’ve asked our investment managers who invest the money on our behalf,” said Andrew Coward, treasurer of the foundation. “They’ve all been clear, if you decide to exclude fossil fuel companies, you should lower your return expectations.

“That doesn’t align with the foundation’s duty of being a prudent investor, which is to maximize the returns to support those student scholarships, bursaries, academic programs and research.”

Coward said the foundation takes a responsible investing approach, consulting with managers and taking environmental, social and governance factors into consideration.

The foundation also recently became a signatory to the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investing, and is considering a detailed proposal for a pilot project to launch a fossil fuel-free fund for new donations.

Prior to the scheduled board meeting, members of Divest UVic, a student organization that opposes the school’s investment in fossil fuels, formed a “human corridor” leading into the University Centre. Students stood in parallel lines, with one side wearing black to symbolize fossil fuel infrastructure while the other side wore blue to symbolize clean and renewable energy alternatives. They also held up signs depicting both sides, using such imagery as oil droplets and wind turbines.

According to Divest UVic, the university currently invests more than $30 million in such fossil fuel companies as Suncor, Encana and Talisman Energy, which they feel will be unsustainable if the world shifts to alternative energy solutions.

“By continuing to invest in fossil fuels, the only way these investments remain profitable is if fossil fuel companies burn more of their reserves, and scientists are telling us we can’t burn in order to have a safe climate,” said Divest UVic spokesperson Emily Thiessen. “That makes the choice really clear.”

Thiessen noted their group has significant support from the university community. In last spring’s referendum, 77 per cent of student voters were in favour of divestment, and Thiessen said two of the university’s staff unions have passed resolutions endorsing divestment.

“We’ve heard from students, faculty, staff, and the big stakeholders we haven’t heard from are the board of governors,” she said.

 

“The precedent has already been set by a lot of other institutions that have already divested,” added Divest UVic spokesperson Nick Smith. “It’s an opportunity for UVic to live up to their reputation of sustainability and to set a precedent for universities across Canada.”