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January 30, 2018 6:14 pm

McGill University Considers Rejecting Use of Endowment to ‘Advance Social, Political Causes,’ Drawing BDS Protest

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The Arts Building at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Photo: Edward Bilodeau.

The Board of Governors at McGill University in Montreal, Canada is considering advising against the use of its resources “to advance social or political causes,” a move that has faced opposition from students supportive of boycotts against Israel.

In a December 12th meeting, the board considered including the language in the mandate of its Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility, which informs the board of the social impact of investments in its 1.6 billion CAD endowment. It also discussed a proposal to review the mandate every five years, rather than the current three.

McGill Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) and Divest McGill warned in The McGill Daily on Monday that such changes “would have effectively destroyed the potential for any divestment campaign in the next five years.”

Divest McGill has sought to pressure the university to withdraw its investments in fossil fuels, while SPHR has called for divestment from companies that “profit from the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories,” in line with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

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Representatives from both campus groups disrupted the meeting to ensure the amendments would not pass.

“We argued that students had a right to know about the proposal, as it has clear political repercussions,” and demanded that the issue be opened to discussion with the broader community, the students recounted. “The Board of Governors refused to agree to do this, and instead postponed a final decision on the amendment until the next meeting on February 15.”

Having failed to secure their desired concession, and viewing the proposal as a threat to the “moral integrity of our University,” the students said they “shut down the meeting in song with a rendition of ‘We Have Got the Power.’”

Robert Walker, national director of the campus advocacy group Hasbara Fellowships Canada, said “bringing in anti-Israel rhetoric — and disrupting meetings when BDS activists don’t like the result — are the actions of a losing cause.”

“McGill’s board of governors is taking the responsible step of ensuring funds used for the wellbeing of students and the university are used for that purpose,” he argued.

Aidan Fishman, advocacy director for the Jewish civil rights group B’nai Brith Canada, said the board’s proposed amendment represents “a strong step” to “combat antisemitism and BDS on campus.”

“Declarations by universities that they will never participate in BDS are consistent with Canadian law,” he asserted, “since in many provinces, boycotts or divestment based on nationality are illegal.”

Fishman expressed hope “that this effort by McGill’s Board of Governors will indeed communicate to student government that the bigoted BDS campaign is a failure, and that student resources would be better spent addressing the social and academic needs of students.”

Like other university heads, McGill’s administration has previously characterized the BDS campaign as an affront to academic freedom.

After a 2016 motion supporting BDS was struck down by McGill undergraduates in an online referendum — marking the third unsuccessful divestment effort organized at the university in 18 months — Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier emphasized that the “administration continues to steadfastly oppose the BDS movement.”

“The BDS movement, which among other things, calls for universities to cut ties with Israeli universities, flies in the face of the tolerance and respect we cherish as values fundamental to a university,” she explained.

In 2016, the SSMU Judicial Board found that the BDS campaign violates the student government’s constitution and equity policy by endorsing discrimination based on national origin. That ruling was ratified by the SSMU Board of Directors in September.

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