Joel Solomon Vs. Board of Governors

Joel Solomon is one of the provincial appointees currently serving on the UBC Board of Governors. He’s a finance guy, but also an environmentalist. I recently read his book The Clean Money Revolution and decided to do a compare-and-contrast of its contents to stated UBC Board of Governors policy. Take a look at the following excerpts (emphasis mine)

The Clean Money Revolution, page 225:

    Major universities have invested endowments so large that they are often referred to as “hedge funds with universities attached.” They concentrate more and more wealth while doing more and more damage. It’s the same with pension funds, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds, banks, charities, and family offices. Each have enormous power to change how money is used. It’s time for these entities to include the well-being of the commons in their definition of “fiduciary responsibility”.
    Fiduciary responsibility has traditionally meant making the highest return rate for owners, exclusive of the damage such investments cause. That mindset must be reinvented. It must change to include the long-term health of the whole planet. Anything else is a form of blindness, and insanity. It is not just imprudent to make extra money by poisoning water, people, or future generations. It’s immoral and it should be illegal. These pools of capital must begin moving 50, 75, or 100 percent of their endowments and assets into the emerging clean economy.

UBC responsible investment committee statement, August 2019

    In managing the Endowment, as UBC’s primary responsibility is to ensure enduring longterm investment returns at a prudent level of risk, ESG [environmental, social, governance - ed] matters are addressed when these factors present material risk to an investment and/or the portfolio. [...]

    Lastly, the Responsible Investing Principles clearly states that UBC does not believe that divestment is an effective strategy for addressing long-term and persistent ESG risks and that divestment is only made when it is legally permissible and financially prudent in consideration of UBC’s Responsible Investing Principles. [...]
    Ownership gives UBC the right to raise concerns and influence a company on matters relating to corporate governance, as well as its environmental and social practices. UBC recognizes that people will have different opinions and conflicting views on our responsible investing activities and principles, particularly as it relates to divestment, but UBC does not consider divestment in isolation of the Responsible Investing Principles described above to be consistent with its fiduciary responsibilities.

I asked Solomon if he stood by his statement that UBC’s current investment policy should be illegal. He didn’t answer that question, but he did reply saying this: “The global climate emergency compels urgent action. I support full divestment of fossil fuel production from UBC’s Endowment investment strategy.” To my knowledge, this is the first public record statement he has made pertaining to UBC specifically, and it puts him in direct opposition to the stated position of UBC’s Responsible Investment Committee, quoted above. In reply to my question about whether he would resign if UBC did not divest, he said that his “best contribution at this time, is through advocacy … as a member of the Board of Governors.”

The Clean Money Revolution, and Solomon’s nice-guy theory of social change both suffer from what I call “present-future confusion syndrome”. That’s when visionary people conflate the things they wish were true with what’s actually happening right now. Solomon claims that there’s a clean money “revolution” going on as we speak – fueled by the generational handover of wealth from boomers to their kids. While he details some promising things going on in the world of ethical and mission-based finance, banking, and investments, calling it a “revolution” – while business as usual marches on, carbon emissions soar, and ecological destruction continues unabated – is a stretch. In the book, Solomon fails to provide basic context about 1) the science of the climate and ecological crisis and its severity and 2) how the financial sector profits from the status quo. Never does he state the obvious: big corporations and the politicians that serve them have entrenched power. These powerful actors aren’t too bothered that they are sending billions of people to starvation and death this century due to runaway ecological disaster – perhaps they still think their wealth and the privilege it buys will protect them.

The result of these absences in basic context is a sycophantically upbeat appeal to the conscience-stricken rich and powerful to completely voluntarily just be a bit better. That’s nice. But it raises the question: what if they don’t wanna?

Solomon may well be asking himself this question as he sits at the UBC Board of Governors table for the third year. UBC has a 2.2 billion dollar endowment that it has not even divested from fossil fuels, let alone done anything values-driven with. In fact, UBC came out with a truly execrable policy statement (part of which I quoted above), only a few months ago in August. It has fought tooth and nail against the students and faculty who have been pushing for fossil fuel divestment for six years while throwing us a bone in the form of a puny “sustainable futures fund” to shut us up while the rest of the endowment remains invested however their antiquated management company sees fit. In other words, Joel, how’s that revolution going?

UBC claims that “engagement” as an owner is better than divestment. While that sounds okay in theory, “engagement” is really another morally fake-neutral legal- techno- babble term that serves as an escape clause for not doing anything. If you need some moral clarity among all of UBC’s jargon, just ask yourself: would you do business with companies that make money from the slave trade? From slaughtering endangered species and selling their parts? Would you buy ownership shares and ‘engage’? If you would, you’d be a monster and everyone would know it. Continued profiteering from the industries that are driving us headfirst into a dark future will be judged just as harshly by history.

Divestment from fossil fuels doesn’t even require any sacrifice – and don’t get me wrong, considerable sacrifice is well justified by the planetary crisis we are in if it helps. The tiny portion of the endowment that is fossil free has performed better than the general pool by UBC’s own admission. To be clear, mere divestment from fossil fuels falls well below the standard of mission-based investment that Solomon calls for in his book. The fact that UBC is still dragging its feet, still putting out half-witted policy statements like the one above, still paying expensive lawyers to give them convoluted and contradictory opinions about how impossible it is to divest from fossil fuels (even though they’re ALREADY DOING IT in the aforementioned puny fund– but let’s not talk about that except when we’re trying to greenwash our damaged image), and still peddling the lie that fiduciary duty is consistent with nothing less than profiting off the premature deaths of their students, is something that every UBC governor should be deeply ashamed about. Concordia, King’s College London, and the entire UC system have already committed to full fossil fuel divestment along with over 130 other universities.

I’m singling out Joel Solomon here, and I feel a bit bad about that. He says that he’s trying, and it’s easy for me to point out his failure to succeed when his aspirations are so lofty. The truth is that we’re absolutely on the same side, and there are elected student and faculty BoG reps who have also been advocating for this for a long time. The reason I’m naming him here is because he a) has real power and b) has until now chosen to remain behind closed doors instead of publicly telling the truth about UBC’s specific ethical failure. That said, all the other appointed members of the BoG are even more to blame. If Solomon is really trying to work the back rooms in good faith as he claims, there are others blocking his efforts at every turn. They’re the ones that have some soul-searching to do.

This week, Extinction Rebellion UBC will be escalating action pointing out the continued failure of UBC’s governing bodies to act appropriately. We’ve studied the history of how change actually happens in the world, and spoiler alert, it isn’t by asking nicely. If we do not see agendas moving on full divestment in the upcoming cycle of BoG meetings, do not expect business as usual to proceed.

To all the members of the Board: your continued failure to act appropriately is not among the forgivable small hypocrisies of everyday life in a toxic system. You are not exempted or excused from your hypocrisies and lies when you govern a powerful and wealthy public entity. You are accountable for the choices you are making for our collective future. The time for backroom dealings is over. We are asking you now – what side of history are you on?


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  1. The climate crisis requires urgent action. I strongly support full divestment of fossil fuel production investments from the UBC Endowment portfolio.

    Student, faculty, staff, and citizen voices are essential to help push our role forward in this crucial financial transition.
    The University has a significant leadership role, given our global reputation in sustainability.

    Concordia University just announced its divestment commitment. Let’s join them.

    History is counting on us all, for ever more bold steps.

    Thank you for continued coverage of this topic.

    Joel Solomon

    Posted by Joel Solomon | November 13, 2019, 7:50 am
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