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Two years ago, on a cold day in February, I sat across a large desk from the president and VP finance of my alma mater, Mount Allison University. While dozens of students, faculty and community members rallied in the quad below, a colleague and I were delivering a report to both top-ranking administrators — urging them to withdraw the university’s endowment fund from the fossil fuel industry. With their backs turned to closed windows, they easily dismissed our demands — and the supporting chants from the crowd below.

For me, it was a clear demonstration of administrations’ growing ability to muffle the dissenting voices of both students and faculty at post-secondary institutions across Canada. It was an explanation as to why — after almost four years of the divestment movement’s existence on Canadian campuses — campaign after campaign (with the possible exceptions of the half-measures introduced at Concordia and UOttawa) has received an emphatic “no” from their institution’s administrative elite.

Canadian universities’ stubborn resistance to move money out of the oil and gas industry often raises questions about their direct ties to these corporations. Take for instance Dalhousie University, whose divestment campaign, Divest Dal, shed light on the university’s troubling ties to fossil fuel companies, including their $600,000 contract with Shell Canada.

Yet, while there’s no disagreeing that Canadian institutions are increasingly tied to private interests, what’s often missing from these conversations is how the concerns of both student and faculty get shunted aside.

As Claire Polster, a professor of Sociology at the University of Regina puts it, “As universities work more with corporations, they become more like corporations themselves.”

The question then becomes: How are students meant to challenge corporate power when their universities have embraced the same corporate logic and corporate governance structures of the companies students are seeking to delegitimize?

The rise of administrative power in Canadian universities

According to Polster, over the years, greater amounts of resources have been shifted away from faculty and toward university administrators. This explains in part why, in attempting to convince their institutions to do the absolute bare minimum for climate justice, students across the country have been forced to navigate complex administrative processes and jump through countless bureaucratic hoops. 

Alex Lepianka, a fourth-year Economics student and organizer with Divest MTA, now sits on two investment-related committees at Mount Allison University, one of which was created directly in response to Divest MTA.

“Making claims through these established channels isn’t something that comes naturally to [students] but somewhere down the line, someone had to consciously decide where it was in [the administration’s] best interest for these conversations to take place,” says Lepianka.

Students often willingly begin their campaigns within these channels, seeing them as the only spaces in which they can be taken seriously by their universities’ bureaucracies. They adopt administrative language, toy with economic arguments, and sometimes, they even go so far as to dust off “business attire” that somehow never seems to fit. In sum, they play the administrative game in a last-ditch attempt to have their concerns about the future of the planet taken seriously.

“And once you start down that road, you’re in their corporate governance structure. You’re sitting down at the table and you’re listening to 90-minute reports, and looking at documents prepared by these investment managers. You’re circulating meeting minutes in which the first 400 pages are a report by Mercer, an international investment firm, and the next 20 pages, a report by students, and they’re held up as equal and opposing,” says Lepianka.

The University of Toronto offers case in point. In their attempts to have their institution divest from fossil fuel companies, student organizers and supporting members of UofT350 drafted a 230-page “brief” that addressed relevant administrative policies and procedures, and responded directly to questions posed by the ad hoc committee charged with investigating the matter. However, even after the president’s own advisory committee recommended targeted divestment from firms disregarding the international effort to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming, President Gertler largely dismissed their expert recommendation — opting instead to create four additional “working groups” comprised of senior administrative staff.

Public interests, corporate logic

The University of Toronto’s campaign — along with at least half a dozen others across the country — demonstrate that the problem extends far beyond a generation of university students having to navigate an increasingly corporate governance structure that relies on managerial buzzwords, stonewalling and secrecy.

A corporate logic has become so engrained in Canadian post-secondary institutions that it’s become almost undetectable. However, divestment organizers watch this logic rear its ugly head every time administrators downplay climate science and grasp for excuses that allow them to continue investing in the destruction of the planet. In fact, it appears in its most obvious form every time a senior administrator utters the words, “fiduciary duty.”

As Lepianka notes, “Ideally, if everything worked as it should, you wouldn’t need more than the couple committee spots for faculty and students, but now we’re at a point where the corporate logic that guides governance decision-making is so entrenched that it doesn’t even matter if you have representation. You can voice concerns but if those concerns are incompatible with this corporate logic then ultimately, what’s the point?” 

Protecting endowments, protecting themselves

Finally, we can’t ignore exactly what the divestment movement is targeting: the endowment fund. As political scientist Benjamin Ginsburg puts it, “Endowment income is an administrator’s dream come true.”

More so than any other university revenue stream, earnings from universities’ endowments enhance administrative autonomy. Without being tied to tuition fees or even directly tied to the generosity of alumni, endowment income allows administrations to bypass faculty consultation and spend or reinvest the earnings as they see fit. The endowment reproduces administrative power. 

“The endowment is the administration,” says Lepianka. “One does not exist without the other.

“The fact that you have an endowment presupposes that you have this formal structure for managing it — this legal entity to which the endowment is entrusted. So in many ways, when we go after the endowment, we’re really going after the administration of the endowment.”

Yet, the endowment fund is a direct matter of public interest. Donations to universities are tax deductible, and schools’ endowment earnings are tax-exempt — the premise, of course, being that universities serve the public interest by spending endowment earnings on students’ education. However, insofar as these earnings are being used to expand administrative autonomy or are being reinvested in companies whose business models directly contradict climate science, to what extent is the public interest truly being served?

It’s time we recognized that the push for fossil fuel divestment is not only a struggle for environmental accountability, but also a resistance movement against the corporatization of Canadian universities.

And it’s a fight in which all our voices belong.

Emma Jackson is a guest on Treaty 6 land (Edmonton, AB) where she’s a sociology graduate student at the University of Alberta and a research assistant at the Parkland Institute. She began organizing with Divest MTA from the start of its campaign in 2013 and remains an organizer of its alumni faction.

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