In an article that appeared in The Varsity last week, a writer advocated for an endorsement of the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement by the university. In this article, I will not address the merits of the BDS movement. Instead, I will argue against student activists seeking endorsement from our university. The reason is twofold: I do not understand the BDS debate well enough to comment on it in particular, but I can comment about the form of student advocacy in general. I’ll do this by examining U of T, the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM), and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), in turn.
First, the university, as an institution, should not give endorsement to sociopolitical causes that take place beyond its campus. The reason is quite simple. To quote our school’s policy on “social and political issues with respect to university divestment:” “the University’s core academic values include freedom of inquiry and open debate. As a general matter, the University does not take positions on social or political issues apart from those directly pertinent to higher education and academic research. Instead, its role is to provide a forum within which issues can be studied carefully and debated vigorously.”
Note, however, that this stance is not at odds with the idea that the university is a community with values and traditions to uphold. Students could still pressure the university on issues such as support for mental health or gender equality. They are directly pertinent to higher education.
Additionally, this statement does not preclude individuals within the institution from taking a stand. Students could take on causes such as BDS, but they should not ask for endorsement from U of T, because it is not a stakeholder in these debates and should not be brought in merely to give one side more credibility.
Second, while UTAM is the target of a number of divestment campaigns, including BDS, the argument for divestment actually hinges on a misunderstanding about the source of UTAM’s funds. UTAM does not actually manage money from our pocket.
According to its 2014 annual report, it holds $2.3 billion in its endowment, $3.8 billion in pension plan, and $1.4 billion in working capital. Only the last category involves student fees. Even then, working capital is largely determined by the timing of staff salaries, maintenance fees, government grant, etc. As such, our sense of ownership of the university’s investment fund such as is implicit in the arguments presented in last week’s article is actually false. Students have only a relatively minor stake in it.
When other activists campaign for divestment, they make a rather different argument: they appeal to our university’s responsibility as an ethical investor. That is, our university should not reap rewards from companies that engage in socially injurious behaviors. This makes sense and it has succeeded before, leading to divestment from the tobacco industry and from apartheid South Africa.
Notice, however, that divestment in this case feels somewhat different from our university taking a side in these issues. Investing is but a pastime of this institution. Its main mandate is to research and to teach. As such, it would be bizarre that U of T would be forced to sacrifice the neutrality needed for its main function to satisfy its responsibility for a secondary one.
While I oppose endorsements by U of T, I think student activists should take their causes to the UTSU. After all, unlike the other two bodies, this one is fully democratic and its only purpose is to represent us, the students.
Whether the UTSU should actually take political stances on controversial issues is still subject to debate; yet, it stands that the UTSU has taken stances on similar issues before. It has endorsed the fossil fuel divestment campaign, and it will introduce a motion to support BDS at its Special General Meeting in November.
In short, student activists should only seek endorsement from the UTSU. U of T’s mandate is to research and teach. It should not be forced to take a position on social issues just to lend credibility to a debate which does not concern it.
Li Pan is a fourth-year student at Trinity College studying economics and math.