Smoke rises from a coal-fired power plant in Obilic, Kosovo. CNS photo/Ognen Teofilovski, Reuters

St. Michael's College works to move investments to sustainable options

  • February 25, 2021

$178 million might be a lot of money or it might not be anywhere near enough. It all depends what you want to do with it.

But the relative might of the University of St. Michael’s College’s endowments and pension funds isn’t the big question for the University of Toronto’s Catholic college. Instead the 169-year-old institution is asking itself, what’s the right thing to do with our investments?

St. Michael’s is the only Canadian Catholic college to join in a new network of universities who have pledged to use their investments to nudge corporate Canada into action on climate change. The University Network of Investor Engagement, or UNIE, includes some of Canada’s largest higher education institutions, including University of Toronto Asset Management, York University, Université de Montreal, Hamilton, Ont.’s McMaster University and Carleton University in Ottawa.

In total, nine universities have banded together to drive the corporations they’re invested in to lower their collective carbon footprints. 

To get the ear of corporate board rooms, UNIE is relying on the Share Holder Association for Research and Education (SHARE) — the number one Canadian organization for initiating shareholder action. The new university network “is designed to help Canadian universities connect to the global investor movement to accelerate the climate transition — undoubtedly, the defining issue of our time,” said a statement from SHARE.

But this isn’t necessarily new to St. Michael’s College, said university president and vice chancellor David Sylvester. St. Mike’s has been hosting SHARE meetings on its campus since 2016. There’s been a committee working with SHARE on prioritizing environment, social and governance factors in investments since 2017. What’s new here is co-ordination with other university investors.

“We’ve been involved in ESG, committed to it, at all levels of the collegium (the college’s governing body), not just at the college. We actually have our finance committee engaged on this,” Sylvester said.

Because all of St. Michael’s money is pooled with other funds and because of restrictions on how some parts of the college’s endowments may be invested, the more radical move of fossil fuel divestment would be difficult to engineer, though it’s a topic under active discussion, Sylvester said.

But actively campaigning, in collaboration with other universities, to shrink corporate carbon footprints is by no means a half-measure, said Sylvester. 

“You change the behaviour of companies internally, rather than standing out on the street protesting and hoping they do what you want,” he said.

Getting out in front on climate-driven shareholder activism isn’t a reflection of current or passing political fashion among students and professors. For St. Michael’s it’s just part of a global plan to put the college’s Catholic identity first, said Sylvester.

In a defining statement about the future of St. Michael’s, the college has committed itself to Catholic guideposts for future development — what it teaches, how it teaches and what it does as an institution.

Pope Francis’ landmark encyclicals Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti now define how Canada’s largest Catholic institution of higher learning goes about its business.

“The University of St. Michael’s College will be a recognized leader in promoting respectful dialogue and action on care for our common home (Laudato Si’) and solidarity with the human family (Fratelli Tutti),” reads the college’s new vision statement issued just before Christmas.

This vision statement — “St. Mike’s 180: Rooted in the Future” — was a year-and-a-half in the works in an effort to set out what kind of place St. Michael’s wants to be on its 180th birthday in 2032. Inspired by Pope Francis, the college defines its Catholic values in terms of human dignity, community, social justice, service and sustainability.

“So every decision we make at St. Mike’s now — about buildings, about everything — it’s through a lens of sustainability,” Sylvester said.

Sustainability means much more than just balancing the books and putting some money aside for a rainy day, Sylvester said. It has to encompass a smaller environmental footprint for both the university’s operations and its investments.

“That sends a message about the kind of Catholic institution we aspire to be,” he said.

Having adapted a new vision statement and acted on it by joining the University Network for Investor Engagement, St. Mike’s plans a colloquium for this spring involving faculty, students, administrators and alumni.

“We’re going to dive down and we’ll actually explore, what do we mean by Catholic?” Sylvester said. “What are the things we need to be doing at all levels of the institution to live out who we are as a Catholic institution — not in 1950 but in 2021, 22 and beyond…

“The term Catholic in a university setting like St. Michael’s needs to be a verb and not an adjective.”

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