Quitting Over Fossil Fuels

McGill professor resigns over university's repeated votes to keep investing in fossil fuels.

January 20, 2020
 
Gregory Mikkelson

A professor at McGill University is voluntarily leaving his tenured job next month, in protest of the campus governing board’s recent vote against divesting from fossil fuels.

Gregory Mikkelson, the associate professor, is a philosopher and environmental scientist, which puts divestment squarely within the realm of his own research. But in an interview he said he also based his decision on what he calls McGill's antidemocratic governance system.

“Being in a school environment, you’re immersed in all these facts about the accelerating deterioration of our planet and how urgent it is to take strong measures to try to relieve and reverse these trends,” Mikkelson said, yet “my own institution refuses to take this small step.”

More than that, he continued, “this is the third time in seven years that the board has refused to divest from fossil fuels.” The first two times, Mikkelson said, McGill’s Board of Governors did so against “the strong basis in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities” for divestment.

Most recently, in a decision announced in December, he continued, the Montreal board did so “in defiance and denial of an overwhelming mandate” from campus groups. Indeed, every employee and student organization that has considered divestment in recent years -- including the large, representative University Senate -- has voted in favor. Two other professors on the Board of Governors resigned as elected faculty representatives over the fossil fuel issue last year.

In a report that informed the recent vote, a commitee of the McGill board wrote in favor of  decarbonization, or reducing "overall carbon emissions of the endowment portfolio, by a percentage to be set against a determined reference index or benchmark," over divestment. Mikkelson argued that that is decarbonization is a murky goal that centers on the process of pulling fossil fuels out of the ground and not the far more deleterious effects of burning fossils fuels as a product. 

Cynthia Lee, McGill spokesperson, said via email that the university "is moving forward reducing the overall carbon footprint of its investment portfolio, including those within the fossil fuel industry." McGill also plans to "look at increasing its investments in clean technologies, renewable energy infrastructure and fossil-fuel-free funds to enhance its low-carbon investments."

Some 8.7 percent of the university's $1.7 billion Canadian, or $1.3 billion U.S., endowment fund investments are in the "larger energy sector," which includes renewable fuels, wind and solar, Lee said. About 1.9 percent of the portfolio includes investment in the equity of the top 200 coal, oil, gas and other companies listed in the Carbon Underground 200 index.

"Adopting a more carbon-conscious investment approach complements McGill’s far-reaching climate change and sustainability goals, including institution-wide efforts to achieve carbon neutrality across the University’s operations by 2040," Lee added.

Mikkelson, who is American, also described the “McGill problem” as part of a bigger “Canadian problem,” in which the country has adopted various environmentally friendly policies while continuing to allow and profit from increased production of fossil fuels, particularly via Canada's western tar sands.

That Mikkelson doesn’t have a plan for what’s next speaks to his conviction: tenured faculty positions are hard to come by. But he said he hopes to continue studying and speaking on the intersection of the natural world and economic growth, including biodiversity law. His faculty colleagues, meanwhile, have been “very supportive,” he said, acknowledging that his decision means “disruption” for them and for his students.

Asked what might move the dial on the fossil fuel issue, Mikkelson said the dial is already moving. Several large Canadian universities already have divested from fossil fuels, including the University of British Columbia, just this month. That endowment is roughly the same as McGill’s, he noted.

Mikkelson also contrasted McGill’s response to faculty calls for divestment with that of the University of California: in September, the massive system said that it was making its $70 billion pension fund and $13.4 billion endowment "fossil-free."

The California move followed years of campus protests and other campaigning against fossil fuels. But the university has said its ultimate decision was more about money than politics. Fossil fuels in the portfolio at this point amount to too much risk, it said.

McGill, meanwhile, has said that dropping fossil fuels is too risky. Yet that also conflicts with a recent working paper finding that colleges' and universities' financial concerns about divestment are overblown, if any risk exists at all.

Chris Marsicano, a co-author on that paper and a visiting assistant professor in education studies at Davidson College, said that four of about 100 Canadian colleges and universities have divested or plan to, in addition to British Columbia. About 45 of the approximately 1,400 colleges and universities in the U.S. have done the same or plan to, at least in part, he said.

Marsicano said he’d never heard of anyone resigning from a tenured position over fossil fuels, but that it would be a “brave move.”

“I expect that anyone with a track record strong enough to get tenured would have many options after resigning,” he added. “People with integrity and those who stand up for their beliefs tend to land well.”

 

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