Students protest UVic fossil fuel investments at September Board of Governors meeting

Campus Local News Uncategorized

Responsible investing, new international student tuition raises discussed

Several dozen student protesters attended the first UVic Board of Governors (BoG) meeting of the year on Sep. 24 to speak out against the university’s $39.72 million (as of 2017) worth of investments in fossil fuels. In the meeting, the BoG spoke to their ongoing discussion and education around responsible investing, along with this year’s Strategic Framework and the potential for a new increase in international student tuition.

Protesters began to gather outside the University Centre an hour before the meeting, several carrying hand-painted signs with slogans such as “Stop fracking with my funds” and “Don’t be a fossil fool.” Most of these signs were created the night before at a UVSS-hosted art build, with supplies purchased courtesy of a $200 donation from the UVic Faculty Association.

Two officers from Campus Security, Patrick Seward and Robert Johns, stood by, observing the protest prior to and during the meeting. When asked by the Martlet what role they expected to play in the day’s proceedings, Seward declined to comment.

As the board meeting drew nearer, protesters lined up along the side of the building. Chants of “People over profit!” and “Divest!” grew to a cacophony as the members of the BoG approached, led by UVic President Jamie Cassels. Before entering the Senate and Board Chambers, Cassels slowly walked past each of the assembled students, looking at the messages they carried.

Today, we’re really just trying to continue to build that political will and just show [UVic] that … [students] are still here to hold them accountable.”

Juliet Watts, UVSS Director of Campaigns and Community Relations

After members of the board settled into their seats, Campus Security allowed protesters to file in to the gallery and the meeting was called to order.

This protest was part of an ongoing effort by Divest UVic, a UVSS campaign which has reignited over the last several months in its efforts to implore UVic to divest from fossil fuel companies — a goal they believe can be achieved in three years. Similar protests were staged at the May and March BoG meetings.

“Today, we’re really just trying to continue to build that political will and just show [UVic] that … [students] are still here to hold them accountable,” said Juliet Watts, UVSS Director of Campaigns and Community Relations.

Currently, the BoG is considering a change to their strategy for short-term investments and bonds. Watts says that it’s likely that around 10 per cent of the university’s $200 million in bonds and short-term investments is invested in fossil fuels.

In this process, members of the BoG have undergone education sessions about responsible investing from Andrew Coward, UVic’s Treasurer. Members of the UVSS also took part in similar bi-weekly strategy sessions over the summer. 

The board is still discussing the options for investment going forward, namely impact investing (intended to generate social or environmental impact alongside revenue), positive screening (favouring environmentally responsible companies), and negative screening (which would screen against fossil fuel investments, and is the only option the UVSS actually supports).

The investment policy will be voted on at the Nov. 25 BoG meeting, and UVic’s budget for the upcoming terms will be voted on in March. 

Members of the board — with the exception of undergraduate representative Isabella Lee, who arrived late to the meeting — waited as students settled into the gallery before calling the meeting to order.

President Cassels spoke first in his address about the grief felt by himself and the UVic community in the wake of the Bamfield Road bus crash earlier this month that resulted in the death of two UVic students. He once again extended his condolences on behalf of the university.

From there, Cassels touched on several updates and announcements: the new Student Wellness Centre and student housing projects are on track, and four UVic researchers have been accepted into the Royal Society of Canada.

He also noted that UVic received one of North America’s highest ratings for sustainability, which prompted laughter from one of the Divest protesters. Someone clapped sarcastically, and Cassels thanked them.

Next came a brief update on the budget — planning will begin in November, and it will be voted on by the board in March. 

Gayle Gorrill, UVic’s Vice-President of Finance and Operations, said that the board will be looking to continue raising tuition for international undergraduate students for the next year at an increase of “slightly less than four per cent.” They are also discussing a similar increase for graduate students.

“Action needs to be taken fast … we’re just waiting for more information, these things don’t happen overnight.”

Isabella Lee, Board of Governors Undergraduate representitive

Gorrill noted that UVic has just completed the process of increasing international tuition fees to rates which the university feels are comparable to other universities. In 2018, the board voted to increase incoming international student tuition by 20 per cent for that September, and 15 per cent for September 2019. This March, the board voted to reaffirm the 15 per cent increase for September despite over a hundred students coming out to protest the tuition hike.

The board then passed a motion to change the tuition classification for Indigenous students from the United States, whose ancestral territories cross international borders, from international tuition to domestic.

The conversation then turned to the topic of responsible investing. Divest UVic submitted a letter to the board advocating for negative screening, and the board members discussed what they had learned in the educational sessions on investments that they had recently attended.

Several board members expressed concern about the “unintended consequences of simply divesting.” This prompted loud objections from several members of the gallery, including Watts.

It was at this point that Lee, having just arrived at the meeting, addressed the protesters.

“We’re listening, I’m listening,” she said. “Action needs to be taken fast … we’re just waiting for more information, these things don’t happen overnight.”

The room remained tense as the board listened to a presentation of the Strategic Framework — particularly during the section on sustainability, as reactions from the gallery grew louder. As the meeting adjourned, someone in the gallery shouted “Climate change kills!”

For now, it is uncertain what steps regarding divestment the board will decide on come November. But in this protest, students made it clear that they have an active, vested interest in that outcome.

“We fund [UVic] indirectly as students so we’re stakeholders in this,” said Dorothy Hodgins, a fourth year student at the protest. “We won’t support them if they won’t conduct their business according to our values.”