While activists call for investment in more sustainable industries, Mac's own practices are unclear

It’s no secret that universities deal with a lot of money. Between tuition, research funding and corporate sponsorships, cash is often on the minds of McMaster administrators. But what people may not know is where the school spends its money.

Elysia Petrone is hoping to change that.

A new Hamilton resident and recent graduate of Lakehead University, Petrone has put forward a petition to Maclean’s Magazine to offer a ranking of schools based on “ethical investment” in their annual University Rankings issue. Together with Kyuwon Kim and Yasmin Parodi, also recent graduates, she hopes to promote divestment across Canada.

“Canadian Universities are proud to claim they are on the cutting edge of sustainability education and research to solve global problems,” reads their online petition, run through Change.com.

“However, together Canadian Universities are investing billions of dollars in unsustainable and unethical industries that we think students would have a problem with.”

The petition lists examples of these “unethical” industries, which includes fossil fuels, weapons manufacturing and tobacco companies.

The three young women thought Maclean’s was a suitable way to promote their commitment to divestment.

“We were thinking [the petition] would be an easier way to create effective change, because it’s going to be a challenge to go to these universities that have vested interests,” Petrone explained in an interview.

“We thought that instead of working with one university, [Maclean’s] could do a lot of the groundwork and find this information.”

She described Maclean’s University Rankings, now in their 22nd year, as the “be-all, end-all of rankings” in Canada.

Although the goal of the petition is focused on the magazine, Petrone hopes to encourage students to pressure their own universities towards divestment.

“I’ve been able to raise this issue with people in my circles here [in Hamilton], and I [thought we should] start something at Mac,” she explained.

“Right now our goal is to find local activists on campus and people who can get on board and invest their time in this project … I don’t go to McMaster, so I want to inject this idea and help it get founded.”

No Canadian universities have yet agreed to divest from fossil fuels, though campaigns exist at McGill, University of Ottawa, University of British Columbia and University of Toronto. Activists at U of T also found success with a 2007 campaign against investment in tobacco companies. The university eventually agreed to divest from tobacco and tobacco-related stocks.

While divestment hasn’t been an institutional priority at McMaster, students supported a 2005 referendum to end the university’s exclusive contract with Coca-Cola due to the company’s alleged human rights violations.

“McMaster’s a big institution, so it’s time to get this thing going here,” said Petrone.

The focus is to avoid investment in any companies that could be deemed unethical or unsustainable, but at McMaster, it is unclear whether or not such investment exists.

Details of investments made by the McMaster Department of Treasury Operations, which manages the school’s endowment funds, are not available to the public. As of 2011, McMaster had a total endowment of $519 million.

“[The investments are] managed on McMaster’s behalf by private investment managers, and these investment managers are guided by the policy, and we’re working with them to make them aware of the policy and ensure they’re directed by it,” explained Gord Arbeau, Director of Public Relations at McMaster.

“With the nature of the investment, it’s impossible to keep up-to-date information or lists as this is frequently changing.”

However, other large universities across Canada, including University of Victoria, Western University, Queen’s University, York University and many others, have such data available online. This has resulted in McMaster being ranked behind most major Canadian universities in terms of endowment transparency, according to the US-based College Sustainability Report Card.

McMaster’s policy on social responsibility in investment, last updated in 1980, states that “the primary social responsibility of the University is to fulfill its role as a centre of learning and free inquiry,” noting also that “the Finance Committee ... does have a serious obligation to consider matters of social responsibility that may arise in connection with its investment decisions.”

The policy stipulates that moral judgments of an industry are to be made based on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as a guideline.

Despite their enthusiasm, Petrone, Kim and Parodi have not been met with much support from Maclean’s for their proposed ranking.

“We believe this is an issue best explored in an article,” the magazine wrote in a press release. “At this point we are not considering introducing a ranking indicator on ethical investment of university endowment funds.”

The Change.com petition was set up to send one email to Mary Dwyer, Senior University Rankings editor at Maclean’s, for each signature it received. Petrone and her colleagues agreed to disable this function, but she acknowledged the initial series of emails might have strained relations. Dwyer was unavailable for further comment on the matter.

Maclean’s did respond to the petition with two articles posted on Maclean’s onCampus, a subset of the magazine’s main website. One article argued in favour of investment in divestment; the other made a case that ethical investments are not so simple.

“We want more than just two articles on this website that no one ever goes to,” insisted Petrone. “The petition has [almost ten thousand] people and we want publishing; we want [Maclean’s] to actually publish in [their] print paper every year.”

“I just feel that if there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said. “Hopefully things will spin, and pretty soon all universities will be on the divestment train.”

Subscribe to our Mailing List

© 2023 The Silhouette. All Rights Reserved. McMaster University's Student Newspaper.