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January 20, 2020; Inside Higher Ed

At Montréal’s famed McGill University, Gregory Mikkelson, a tenured professor in environmental science and philosophy, has decided that he will resign his tenured position to protest a recent vote by McGill University trustees against divesting from fossil fuels—an act by a university faculty member that can only be said to be exceedingly rare.

Mikkelson gave a couple of reasons for his decision. One was the data. As Mikkelson notes, “Being in a school environment, you’re immersed in all these facts about the accelerating deterioration of our planet and how urgent it is to take strong measures to try to relieve and reverse these trends.” Yet, he added, “my own institution refuses to take this small step.”

Additionally, Mikkelson notes that, “this is the third time in seven years that the board has refused to divest from fossil fuels.” This time was especially galling, given the robust support for divestment across the campus, with the faculty University Senate, voting in favor of divesting. Two other professors on the Board of Governors, Flaherty notes in Inside Higher Ed, “resigned as elected faculty representatives over the fossil fuel issue last year.”

Cynthia Lee, a spokesperson at McGill, indicates that while the school has refused to divest its fossil fuel stocks, the university “is moving forward reducing the overall carbon footprint of its investment portfolio” by increasing its investments in “clean technologies, renewable energy infrastructure, and fossil-fuel-free funds.”

Mikkelson says he doesn’t know what will happen next, but he adds that he intends to keep studying and speaking on the intersection of the natural world and economic growth. Asked what might move the dial on divestment, Mikkelson notes that the dial is already moving. Despite McGill’s inaction, several other large Canadian universities already have divested from fossil fuels, including the University of British Columbia (UBC), just this month. UBC’s endowment, observes Mikkelson, is roughly the same as McGill’s.

According to Chris Marsicano, a visiting assistant professor in education studies at Davidson College, four of about 100 Canadian colleges and universities have divested from fossil fuel stocks or have plans to do so, making UBC the fifth Canadian university to announce its intent to divest. About 45 universities in the US have taken similar action.

Marsicano told Flaherty that he’d never heard of anyone resigning from a tenured position over fossil fuels, but he noted that taking such a step would be a ”brave move.”—Steve Dubb