Call for divestment sparks controversy at Memorial University

Some students at Memorial University are fighting against a student union motion for the university to withdraw its investments from fossil fuel companies.

The motion, put forward by student group Divest MUN, will be tabled at the MUNSU board meeting on March 30.

It asks for the university to divest from the top 200 fossil fuel companies over the next five years, stop any future investments in oil and gas, and re-invest in renewable energy where possible.

However, some students are angered that MUNSU will vote on whether to support divestment without fully consulting the student body.

More than 200 people have signed a petition against divestment, according to the petition’s creator.

“When we go and say to these companies that have been benefiting our universities with these buildings, these work terms, these scholarships, I guess we essentially spit in their face,” said engineering student Mitchell Sparkes.

Mitchell Sparkes, incoming engineering rep
Mitchell Sparkes, incoming engineering rep

Sparkes says divestment would be extremely detrimental to the university, especially because oil and gas companies are such large corporate donors.

He says he also worries about the impact of supporting divestment on opportunities for work terms.

“We’re saying that no, we’re not interested in dealing with you anymore. That certainly sends a strong message.”

Sparkes has helped organize a public forum on divestment scheduled for April 1.

However, Brittany Byrnes, MUNSU director of campaigns, says that bringing the motion to the board is only a first step in opening up the discussion on divestment.

She says once the motion is tabled, board members can decide whether they need more time before bringing it to a vote.

Byrnes says she personally supports divestment because of the negative environmental impacts and the economic volatility of the oil and gas industry.

Other MUN student unions, faculty association support divestment

Conor Curtis of Divest MUN says that divestment has nothing to do with donations, scholarship funding, or work term placements—only MUN’s stocks in the companies.

He says that divesting from fossil fuels is a way to combat climate change, but would also help MUN diversify its revenue sources.

“Climate change is probably one of the biggest issues we will face in this century,” he said.

“Divestment is not a fix all solution….But it allows us to actually look at where we’re investing and the future that we’re betting on.”

Conor Curtis
Conor Curtis

Curtis says that the recent collapse in the price of oil proves that heavily investing in fossil fuels is a financial liability.

The Grenfell Student Union, MUN’s Graduate Student Union, and the MUN Faculty Association have already pledged their support for divestment.

Divest MUN brought a proposal for divestment to the board of regents in October, which has directed that a committee be formed to examine the idea.

A spokesperson for the university says that committee will likely be formed after the upcoming provincial budget.

MUNSU has ‘pattern’ of not-consulting: Director at Large

Although the motion has not gone to a vote as of print, Pierce Collier, MUNSU director at large, says the union has a troubling culture of making significant decisions without talking to students first.

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He referenced MUNSU’s executive decision to support the striking Covered Bridge potato chips workers by boycotting the brand in the Attic.

“It’s a pattern of us just simply not consulting students at all,” said Collier.

“Putting motions on the table and talking about things when we have just not consulted our membership about it. Especially when we come to this decision in particular, divestment is such a big thing.”

Collier says he’s heard from several engineering and business students that they’re worried about the motion.