Class size. Professors’ research. International reputation. These are some of the usual categories that are used to rank universities. But now a UBC grad wants to add a new, controversial item to this list: how ethical a school’s investments are.
Recent UBC graduate Kyuwon Kim is one of the three students behind a petition to push Maclean’s magazine to include an ethical investment assessment in its annual ranking of Canadian universities. Together with Yasmin Parodi and Elysia Petrone, Kim is asking the magazine to rank universities based on the environmental and labour practices of the companies they invest money in.
“We just got talking about how endowment funds are often invested in unethical ways,” said Kim, who finished her degree in natural resources conservation in 2012. “And then we just came up with using the Maclean’s route of leveraging them to make a change, because a lot of people use the Maclean’s rankings to decide what university they’re going to.”
The petition, launched in December on change.org, already has over 9,000 signatures, and the number is still growing. Kim hopes the ranking system will make it easier for students to see whether a university has ties to corporations that they consider unethical, such as the fossil fuel industry or companies with questionable labour laws.
UBC is a big proponent of on-campus sustainability initiatives, but Kim argues that for them to be a truly “green” university, they need to make sure their investment portfolio is sustainable as well. “I believe that because you go to universities and they are quick to boast about how they’re leading the way in sustainability, and they are, it’s kind of hypocritical that they are investing in unethical activities,” said Kim.
According to UBC treasurer Peter Smailes, the university’s $1 billion endowment fund is managed by the university’s finance deptarment and UBC Investment Management Trust, Inc. (IMANT), a separate corporation owned completely by UBC. IMANT has come under scrutiny in recent years because, as a separate corporation, its files aren’t subject to provincial freedom-of-information law. And for big-picture oversight of UBC’s investment strategy, the buck stops with the UBC Board of Governors.
According to Smailes, UBC does not have a policy that bans the university from investing in certain companies. Instead, investments from the endowment fund go through a process that tries to ensure the best possible long-term return on investment for the university, all while striving to maintain a standard of ethical investment.
Details on what exactly constitutes “ethical investment” are still up for debate.
Recently, various private colleges in the United States have started to scrutinize their endowment investments more closely. Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, does not ban investments in specific sectors. But it does have a policy that all investments must be made in accordance with the school’s core values of sustainability and social responsibility.
The movement hasn’t picked up much steam in Canada, but Kim believes it wouldn’t be difficult for Maclean’s to include investments in their university rankings.
“The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Sustainalytics, and other groups like Corporate Knights, have a lot of material and it’s really available, mainstream research,” said Kim. “The idea would be that Maclean’s could use existing research that’s out there to rank the universities.”
Kim said they have received a response from Maclean’s and talks are ongoing, but would not discuss the details of the conversations. A response from the magazine was not available by press time.