Monday, 6 July 2015

Principals and principles

Here’s an interesting article on the Herald Scotland website. Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, has reportedly written to other university leaders - just in Scotland? it isn’t clear from the article – “raising concerns about the wider impact of … campaigns” to divest themselves from fossil fuels.
A fossil-fuel divestment decision in London

This follows decisions in some universities to cease investing in fossil fuels, and is newsworthy in Scotland because of Ferdinand von Prondzynski’s role in developing proposals for changes to university governance in Scotland, including as stronger voice for students, which have now led to specific proposals by the Scottish government. (See here for a critique by Paul Greatrix, Registrar at Nottingham and acute observer of things HE.)

What’s the controversy?

On the one hand, campaigners have encouraged universities to cease investment in fossil fuels – and in some cases via direct action have caused this to happen. The argument is that by investing in a technology which causes harm, universities are acting inappropriately and immorally – “not in our name”.

The counter argument is that universities have a duty to secure good returns on investment capital that they have; that engagement helps to sustain meaningful change in the fossil fuel industry; and that universities research the things that help transition away from fossil fuels, and only by engaging can this be meaningful.

It’s a classic revolution versus reform argument. When I was an undergraduate, we had a similar situation at LSE, with a campaign to force the School to divest from South Africa, in solidarity with the anti-apartheid campaign. It was ultimately successful, but the clinching argument was, I understand, when the SU demonstrated to the LSE’s finance committee that investing outside SA would bring higher returns. Collapse of Stout Party.

The argument about fossil fuels has another dimension. There’s a concern that divesting from fossil fuels will imperil research activity in that area, and research funding. This brings student activism into direct conflict with academic freedom, and in particular the freedom to choose what to research. I suspect this means that the arguments won’t be so quickly dealt with nor go away – this is about the work of many people in the university, not just Principals and principles.

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