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Opinion: U of T — investment transparency is essential for climate justice

The university is engaging in a diet of passive actions and futile promises
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ISOBEL HEINTZMAN/THE VARSITY
ISOBEL HEINTZMAN/THE VARSITY

Because of the Temerty Foundation’s recent $250 million donation to U of T, a light has been cast on U of T’s investment status — specifically, on its continued fossil fuel sponsorship. 

While U of T President Meric Gertler may continue to characterize the climate crisis as “one of the most urgent challenges facing our world,” the pressing nature of the issue has not been translated into proactive actions. As a self-proclaimed climate leader, U of T should not be downplaying the urgency of the climate crisis by censoring investments.

In October 2019, Leap UofT, a student-led climate advocacy group, filed a Freedom of Information request asking the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM) to reveal its investments, as UTAM currently manages over $10 billion in assets. Under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, people have the right to request information from public institutions like U of T.  

Sydney Gram, a fourth-year life science student and a member of Leap UofT, claimed in an email to The Varsity that UTAM refused to divulge its investment information for two reasons. Gram wrote that UTAM was concerned that “making U of T’s investment details public could make the university less competitive in the investment market,” and that UTAM wished to avoid the “financial cost and effort required to dig up [investment] information.”  

These are not reasons; they are excuses. After all, U of T is one of the top ranked universities in Canada, which suggests that they have the resources to fulfill Leap UofT’s request. By denying this request, UTAM illustrates that its priorities are directed toward their investors and their investors alone. This a classic demonstration of bureaucratic laziness.

On behalf of Leap UofT, Gram questioned UTAM’s reasoning. UTAM’s own 2019 Annual Report indicates that acquiring investment information is not an arduous task because it expects “a great deal of transparency from potential and current managers.” Although the reason behind the university’s obscurity is not concretely known, its continued investment in the fossil fuel industry could serve as a possible explanation.

In an email to The Varsity, Paul Downes, a professor of English and American literature at U of T and a member of Divestment and Beyond, characterized U of T’s lack of transparency as a “betrayal of public trust,” reasoning that “U of T is a public university and the formal agreements and investment strategies associated with all donations should be made fully public.” 

Regarding transparency as an all-consuming chore rather than an obligation not only characterizes the university as dismissive of the climate crisis but, frankly, as an institutional body that severely lacks the institutional humility that is essential to climate advocacy efforts. However, revealing the university’s investments could present U of T in an even more unfavourable light.

For example, Divestment and Beyond — a coalition of U of T faculty, staff, and students advocating for climate justice — has been particularly vocal in its disapproval of the university’s  recent “landmark” charter. The document titled “Investing to Address Climate Change” was signed by 15 Canadian universities and commits them to investing responsibly with respect to the climate crisis. 

In a letter to U of T, the group wrote that the charter “shamefully echoes Alberta’s cynical climate plan of the early 2000s” with no firm strategies as to how the university will achieve “responsible investing.”

UTAM is a founding member of Climate Action 100+, a five-year plan created by investors to move toward a clean energy transition. In these kinds of initiatives, UTAM investment managers have acted on the Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) guidelines, a set of principles that aim to facilitate more responsible investment strategies among investors.

Gram noted that “The University’s focus on ESG factors over more substantive forms of action [such as divestment]… is itself a huge lapse of transparency.” 

In adherence to ESG principles, UTAM promised to reduce its carbon footprint of endowment and pension investment portfolios by at least 40 per cent by 2030. Daren Smith, UTAM’s president, claimed that U of T’s targets were a “highly effective way to address the risks and opportunities related to climate change.”

However, in UTAM’s 2019 Guiding Principles report, the language used was vague. For instance, the document noted that U of T’s involvement with Climate Action 100+ characterizes it as a member of “active participants in encouraging companies to recognize and address carbon risk in the management of their operations.” 

With this in mind, one might ask themselves where U of T’s true motivations lie during the current climate crisis. U of T seems insistent on fortifying a barrier between the public and itself, a clear indicator that the university is not as dedicated to climate action as it claims to be. 

However, the lack of a firm plan might not be an accident. The lack of transparency can lead one to believe that U of T’s actions are tied to the very fact that the fossil fuel industry has been a profitable investment for centuries. 

Frankly, putting a cover over investments is a major infringement of the university’s responsibilities as a public institution. Universities that handle millions of dollars in endowments have a responsibility as large institutional entities to make their investments public. After all, supposedly operating in favour of climate justice requires an intersectional approach that values collaboration with different voices from various sects of the community. 

“The only way that U of T can challenge the domination of the fossil fuel industry is to refuse to fund them- not because this would make fossil fuel companies go bankrupt, but because as a top-ranked educational institution, U of T has enormous power in defining what is morally and intellectually acceptable,” wrote Gram. By refusing to divulge information, the university actively rejects its responsibility to do so. 

U of T is engaging in a diet of passive actions and futile promises. What it hopes to achieve with this smoke-and-mirrors act is unclear. Regardless, if the university continues to refuse to be transparent about their investments, it has no right to be called a climate leader.

Alex Levesque is a second-year social sciences student at University College. He is the comment section’s climate crisis columnist.