The recent news that Dalhousie University in Halifax — and reportedly some 20 other universities across the country — is investigating whether to sever its ties with large businesses that deal in fossil fuels provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the true purpose of the university.
While environmental integrity should be a priority of Canada’s oil, gas and coal industries (as well as every industry), a university boycott of some hydrocarbon producers sends the inappropriate signal that the university has an official moral or intellectual position on energy development, a position which might produce undesirable consequences damaging to both itself and its students.
If the purpose of a university is to serve as a medium in which to debate important issues — even unpopular ones — and not to serve simply as a political instrument, adopting an official position on any given issue, whether economic, political or moral, is both anti-academic and negates its public mandate as a research institution open to different views. Worse still, it implies that university governors can impose positions about complicated, disputed, highly technical issues unqualifiedly on a whole community of intellectual skeptics who pursue truth wherever it may lead.
Ironically, a boycott against investing in energy companies that deal with hydrocarbons would punish corporations that are already reducing their environmental footprint, are encouraging more efficient methods of extracting, processing and distributing their products or are funding research to develop economically efficient geothermal, solar or wind energy.
In addition, divestment directly signals that a university rejects involvement with industries profiting from hydrocarbons. Given that conventional energy sources continue to fuel most of our vehicles, our homes, our schools and our economy, this is an untenable position. If universities seek to remain morally and intellectually consistent, how will they separate themselves completely from oil money? How would such directives be enforced?
If we flip around the moral principle on which the proposed divestment policy rests, universities would have to reject resources coming from the targeted industry. Not doing so would entangle them in counterproductive conundrums or prompt them constantly to disregard their own polices elsewhere, making the boycott ineffective or embarrassing, or both.
Will major universities sacrifice programs bound to benefit the oil industry? Will they curtail engineering, accounting, law, business and even anthropology, whose graduates might be employed by offending energy companies? Similarly, will universities refuse donations from alumni currently employed in such companies, or employed in businesses that supply them, such as cement and steel producers? And if universities truly wish to carry the boycott logic on oil companies through, will they continue to accept tuition money from students (or their parents) who are in the direct or indirect employment of the targeted industries?
And what of students who have benefited from other interactions with the oil industry? Will the biology student who spent her summer rebuilding natural habitats for local plants and wildlife on reclaimed bitumen mine pits near Fort McMurray no longer be welcomed to return to Dalhousie? Or will the environmental design senior student who received an industry bursary for his imaginative work in the development of dry tailings ponds, conserving millions of gallons of water in the process, be banned from returning to a Canadian campus?
If, as most of us might suspect, the answer to these hypothetical questions is no, then why bother divesting — other than making a political statement against hydrocarbon fuels? These potential situations don’t advance the conservation of the natural environment.
Finally, if the purpose of the divestment push is to spark a conversation about environmental conservation and climate change, there are dozens of ways in which universities can foster and promote meaningful debate without shutting down debate on a range of relevant issues as a final decision resetting university investment policy would present.
The looming coercive outcome of imposing a policy during an academic debate is simply the wrong framework in which to have a liberating conversation. The nature of a veritable academic conversation, as are all conversations between engaged friends, is that it always remains open.
Marco Navarro-Génie is President and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies
*This piece appeared in the opinion section of the Calgary Herald, Business in Vancouver, BOE Report, Troy Media, Miramichi Leader, Guelph Mercury, and the Alaska Highway News