On February 8, Climate Justice UofT launched its Bound to Big Oil Report in a presentation at the Health Sciences building, which presented extensive research about U of T’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. 

Sitting in the audience, what struck me the most was the scale of the work put in by student activists to research and organize, and that attending the launch was the first I was hearing of their efforts. I was also surprised to learn that many of U of T and its federated colleges’ most significant climate action initiatives of divesting from fossil fuels were preceded by months of student activism, only for there to be no mention of it in what I see to be U of T’s self-congratulatory statements about them. 

In September 2023, Trinity College released a statement upon its decision to divest from “remaining indirect investments in fossil fuel companies.” In the statement, Provost Mayo Moran claims that “Trinity has always been a leader on issues of sustainability and the environment, and we believe that we must take a critical and integrated approach to sustainability in order to ensure a healthy common future.” However, the college failed to mention that it was the last of U of T’s three federated colleges to make this commitment, and what I see as the real reason behind this decision: student activism. 

This was not the first time U of T failed to give proper credit where due. In April 2023, Victoria College became the first of the three federated colleges to announce divestment from direct fossil fuel producers. Its flowery statement — which I interpreted as something along the lines of, “we had planned to do it anyways” — and extensive praises toward the Board of Regents, the highest decision-making body at Vic, do not mention the event that directly preceded the divestment announcement: an 18-day occupation of the college’s Old Vic building, led by student activist group Climate Justice UofT. 

Victoria College’s statement was also not the first time U of T has oversold itself as a leader in climate action. In October 2021, the university as a whole committed to divesting from fossil fuel companies. U of T President Meric Gertler’s Letter to the Community, upon the decision, recognized the influence universities have as institutions of academic authority and social actors, writing, “This is an opportune moment to commit to even more ambitious carbon reduction goals for the University’s long-term investments.”

However, U of T was opposed to divestment just a few years earlier. In March 2016, Gertler released a report titled “Beyond Divestment: Taking Decisive Action on Climate Change.” This report disregarded recommendations made by the President’s Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels — formed by Gertler in response to pro-divestment petitions — to divest from companies that showed “blatant disregard” for limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a threshold set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

The 2016 report instead outlined efforts such as investing in companies with sound environmental, social, and governance practices; increasing climate research; reducing operation emissions; and prioritizing climate education in the curriculum of certain U of T programs. 

While these may seem like important steps to be taking, they simply are not up to calibre with the capacity U of T has to make impactful, long-term change through its financial endowments. For example, the “Stranded assets and the fossil fuel divestment campaign” report published in October 2013 by Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment discusses risks companies take on by trading in assets seen as overly unsustainable. “The outcome of the stigmatisation process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain. Any direct impacts pale in comparison,” it concludes. 

Gertler’s alternative measures were thus nowhere near the magnitude of change divestment would have led to and seemed to be merely a diversion from his lack of action.   

I argue that Gertler’s change of heart in 2021 could hardly have been simply due to his own moral conscience. The time between his rejection of divestment in 2016 and his commitment to divestment in 2021 was marked by a number of student-led campaigns and actions. 

Days after the divestment rejection in 2016, members of UofT350, the main student organization for climate activism at the time, hung up banners and briefly blocked traffic outside President Gertler’s office. The coming months and years saw rallies, petitions, publications, and disruptions as part of the divestment campaign.  

Student action leading to change is nothing new; it’s just U of T that takes forever to listen. Although the fossil fuel divestment campaign at U of T succeeded in 2021, with much of its major action taking place in 2015, it originally began in 2012. It took nine years of relentless organizing to make U of T listen. 

Going even further back to U of T students’ history of activism, students began the campaign for divestment from apartheid in South Africa in 1983, finally achieving success in 1990. This came after statements from George Connell, president of U of T at the time, saying he did not want to take a social or political stance on the issue in 1988. In 2011, Students Against Israeli Apartheid began a campaign demanding that U of T divest from all companies involved in the occupation and oppression of Palestinians, although the university has yet to heed this call.

I see a pattern here where U of T continually denies student demands, only to eventually give in due to pressure and then take credit for action as its own. It’s time for U of T to start listening to its students and recognizing their efforts when taking actions that I believe work to save the university’s reputation. 

Urooba Shaikh is a third-year student at UTSC studying molecular biology, immunology, and disease, public law, and psychology. She is a Climate Crisis columnist for The Varsity’s Comment section.