• Several other Canadian colleges have pledged to abandon fossil fuel investments
  • Mikkelson has taught at McGill from 18 years
  • McGill said it is committed to reducing the carbon footprint of its investments.

A tenured professor at a top Canadian university has resigned his post after the school refused to disinvest from fossil fuels.

Gregory Mikkelson, a tenured associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Environment at McGill University in Montreal for 18 years, also quit to protest what he called McGill's antidemocratic governance system.

“Being in a school environment, you’re immersed in all these facts about the accelerating deterioration of our planet and how urgent it is to take strong measures to try to relieve and reverse these trends,” Mikkelson said. “My own institution refuses to take this small step.”

Mikkelson added that the university’s governing board had refused to stop investing in fossil fuels three times in the past seven years, including last December.

"I just decided to look for an organization that is both more democratic and more sincerely committed to saving the planet," he said. "All my teaching and research is telling us we need to do this [divest] and yet the organization I work for is telling me to do the opposite."

He also noted the most recent vote came “in defiance and denial of an overwhelming mandate” from campus groups. Two other professors on the McGill’s Board of Governors also resigned last year over the fossil fuel issue.

“Because of the subject matter I research and teach, it became clear that this kind of action is imperative,” Mikkelson said. “Divestment works. It creates political pressure for governments to do the right thing.”

Mikkelson further noted that McGill’s stake in fossil fuels reflects a wider problem in Canada, that is, a country that has adopted many environmentally friendly policies while still profiting from increased production of fossil fuels, particularly through Canada's western tar sands sector.

The Social Responsibility Committee of the university’s Board of Governors, which examined disinvestment, said that “fully divesting from fossil fuels would pose a financial risk to the institution, and the university’s other investment options would be too limited.”

The committee also argued that “divestment is not the most effective way of making a positive impact on the environment.”

Cynthia Lee, McGill spokesperson, pointed out that the university "is moving forward reducing the overall carbon footprint of its investment portfolio, including those within the fossil fuel industry." McGill, she added, also will "look at increasing its investments in clean technologies, renewable energy infrastructure and fossil-fuel-free funds to enhance its low-carbon investments."

Lee noted that about 8.7% of the university's $1.3 billion endowment fund investments are in the "larger energy sector," including renewable fuels, wind and solar, while only about 1.9% of the portfolio includes investments in coal, oil, gas companies.

"Adopting a more carbon-conscious investment approach complements McGill’s far-reaching climate change and sustainability goals, including institution-wide efforts to achieve carbon neutrality across the university’s operations by 2040," Lee added.

Suzanne Fortier, principal and vice-chancellor of McGill, also said her institution's plan to reduce the carbon footprint of its endowment will be more effective than the "symbolic gesture" of simply pulling out of oil and gas companies.

"We're working with a very concrete plan in diminishing our carbon emissions and we're looking at every single one of our investments to see where we can reach a lower carbon emission level in our portfolio and making sure we have targets and timelines we can meet," she said. "We're trying to go to concrete solutions. Symbolic gestures, we'll let others do that."

But Mikkelson called McGill’s strategies vague.

"Whereas divestment would have been a clear and courageous commitment, decarbonization is a complex and confusing motion," he said.

Mikkelson also said McGill's decision was particularly "egregious" since the university’s senate as well as "every faculty, student and staff organization that has considered the matter" has supported divestment.

Some other educational institutions have already abandoned fossil fuels.

Mikkelson cited that several Canadian universities, including the University of British Columbia, have divested from fossil fuels, while Concordia University and Universite Laval plan to follow suit.

Moreover, last September the University of California said it will make its $70 billion pension fund and $13.4 billion endowment "fossil-free."

Chris Marsicano, a visiting assistant professor in education studies at Davidson College in North Carolina, said that about 45 colleges and universities in the U.S. have also disinvested from fossil fuels or plan to.

Marsicano added that he has never heard of anyone resigning from a tenured position over fossil fuels.

“I expect that anyone with a track record strong enough to get tenured would have many options after resigning,” he said. “People with integrity and those who stand up for their beliefs tend to land well.”

Audrey Nelles, a student at the university and an organizer with a group called Divest McGill, said she supports the university's plan to cut the carbon footprint of its endowment, but added they must also disinvest.

"They haven't announced their [reduction] targets yet, but we know whatever they are going to do is not going to be full divestment, and it lacks the power that divestment has, because divestment sends a signal to policymakers that we don't support this industry that has been complicit in the climate crisis," she said.

Nelles added that in the coming months her group plans to increase its pressure tactics to force the university to divest.

"We're going to amplify this, we're going to escalate, we're not going to take no for an answer," she said.