Calling for an Ethical Ethics Committee

Calling for an Ethical Ethics Committee

In brief: There’s an opportunity to make McGill’s ethical investment committee a better equipped to act for social and environmental justice. You can help by attending the community consultations, sending in your own written comment into CAMSR before March 17th, or by signing on in support of our written submission.

This Wednesday, March 12th, a rare and important series of meetings will take place at McGill, in the Thompson House Ballroom, in three 50 minutes sessions from 3:00pm-5:00pm. The committee that makes decisions on the ethics of McGill’s investments is holding a series of community consultations on how they operate. These consultations are ‘rare’ because they provide the community with a direct invitation to consult with decision makers on institutional change, and they are ‘important’ because the process in question desperately needs revisions. Like many such meetings, they come with a requisite set of obscure acronyms, they will most likely not be well attended, and their consequences might not come to fruition for a year or more. But they’re important, we promise. CAMSR was created amidst student pressure to divest the endowment from companies dealing in apartheid South Africa in order to be able to make critical ethical investment decisions that play an important role in shifting society’s path. However, as it stands, there are some important changes that need to be made in order for it to be able to stand on the right side of history again.

McGill’s ‘Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility’ (CAMSR) is a committee charged with reviewing McGill’s investments, in order to ensure that they are ‘ethical’. The committee was created in response to student campaigns to cease investments in companies causing injury to society, such as those doing business in apartheid South Africa, or those in the tobacco industry. McGill’s endowment is a $1.07 billion fund that can be seen as a ‘trust fund’ for the future students of McGill. The interest is used to pay for up to 4% of operating expenses each year. And this term, CAMSR is having their once-in-every-three years review of their ‘terms of reference,’ the rules through which the committee operates.

The most recent push to review the ethics of McGill’s investments came from us, a group called Divest McGill. We are calling for the school to divest from fossil fuel companies due to their funding of biased climate science, lobbying against meaningful action on climate change, and infringement of indigenous rights in the face of catastrophic climate change (while you’re here, you should totally sign our petition). Last May we finished going through the CAMSR review process for our proposal, which ended in our proposal being rejected on extremely unclear grounds. Our experiences with CAMSR have given us some ideas that could help the committee become a  transparent, proactive, and participatory mechanism that’s capable of rigorous ethical decision-making. Here’s what we’re advocating for:

1. A more accurate definition of ‘social injury,’ the criteria used to determine if action should be taken against investing in a certain company. The current definition puts a strong emphasis on laws needing to be broken to prove social injury, and does not extend to include environmental damage. This is problematic in a society where corporations breaking laws is a norm, and our ecological systems are being degraded well beyond their known limits.  The UN Principles on Responsible Investing, Brown University, Stanford University and the Norwegian Pension Fund are just a few of many examples McGill could look to for more expansive considerations of when companies have breached  ethical guidelines.

2. CAMSR needs to take a proactive rather than reactive role. Instead of meeting only when called on by the completion of a lengthy process by a group within the McGill community, the committee should meet at least once a year and take that time to identify areas of investments that are of potential concern. This is an area where applied student research could assist, a mechanism that is active in improving the sustainability of most other areas of the university’s operation.

3. We were extremely concerned, in conversations we had with committee members, to hear that only informal research had been prepared to evaluate the claims we made. We found this particularly frustrating considering that CAMSR’s decision was based on there being “insufficient evidence” available. This university environment contains dozens of globally-renowned experts, including a Nobel-prize winning IPCC member that could provide a more objective and nuanced view than some cursory Google searches. More participation – from ethical & content experts as well as the community in the process would make use of the resources at McGill and provide an avenue for a range of opinions to be heard.

4. As it stands right now, CAMSR has definitions of social injury but no statement of purpose as a committee. One committee member told us “McGill has a moral obligation to donors to make sure we get a very good financial return on the money of theirs that goes to the endowment.” We agree that stewarding donor money, including return, is an important consideration. However, there exists a separate Finance Committee on the Board of Governorts to review these concerns. To what extent should the consideration of profit be balanced against cases of “social injury” in the context of an ethics committee?  A statement of investment values from the university would define the context in which CAMSR is making its decisions, rather than occurring on an ad-hoc basis that allows financial return to play an undefined role.

You can help by attending the community consultations, sending in your own written comment into CAMSR before March 17th, or by signing on in support of our written submission.