Council members were seen exiting through Old Schools' back entrance after their final meeting on divestmentMathias Gjesdal Hammer

Cambridge Zero Carbon has formally challenged the University Council’s landmark decision in June not to fully divest from the fossil fuels sector, claiming that Council’s methods subverted University democratic structures.

Recap: What was Council’s decision on divestment in June?

University Council’s landmark decision on divestment, passed in an extraordinary meeting of Council last month, decided against any commitment to full (or partial) divestment, and rejected recommendations from its divestment working group that it eliminate all remaining indirect investments from tar sands and thermal coal, the most pollutive industries in the sector.

It also decided against adopting the recommendation by its divestment working group that it allocate 10% of its endowment specifically into Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) Funds, opting instead to hire an ‘ESG officer’ to be employed in the Investment Office.

The two student representatives on the Council, then-CUSU President Daisy Eyre and then-GU President Darshana Joshi, submitted notes of dissent to the decision at the time. A separate note of dissent was submitted by Council members Professor Nick Gay and Dr Alice Hutchings.

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14 members of the society have written to Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope that the University evaluate the constitutionality of Council’s methods. A second formal review has been submitted by a group of Cambridge academics.

The University’s constitution – called its Statutes and Ordinances – allows for a formal review of any Council decision to be called for within 30 days of a decision by writing to the vice-chancellor outlining how the decision in question has contravened the constitution.

Zero Carbon’s review makes two central claims: That the University’s decision not to fully divest overturned a pro-divestment motion, called a Grace, from Cambridge’s main governing body, Regent House, and that Council failed to obey the democratic provisions it is mandated to follow given its withholding the Grace.

The Grace calling for full divestment was passed in January last year. It was signed by 140 members of Regent House – a democratic body consisting of around 5,000 University academics and staff charged with making changes to University legislation, and considering proposals by various University bodies including the Council.

In full: The original Regent House Grace calling for full divestment

“That the Regent House, as the governing body of the University, resolves that none of the University’s Endowment Funds should be invested directly or indirectly in companies whose business is wholly or substantially concerned with the extraction of fossil fuels, and requires the Council to publish a Report to the University within twelve months setting out how this is to be achieved.”

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The Council acts as charity trustee of the University, as noted in the University’s statutes. As such, they hold executive power over any decisions pertaining to its responsibility “for the administration of the University, for the planning of its work”, and, most relevantly, “for the management of its resources”, including its endowment.

Council’s response to the Grace in January was to authorise its submission, with the caveat that it could only serve as an advisory course, rather than a mandate, given its executive power.

In full: Council’s response to the Regent House Grace in favour of full divestment

‘The Council has agreed to authorize the submission of the Grace to the Regent House. In adopting this course, the members of Council are mindful that the Grace cannot operate as a mandate in respect of the exercise of their fiduciary responsibility for the University’s investment practices. However, they recognize the strong feeling amongst those who have signed the Grace and they propose to respond by commissioning a report specifically into the advantages and disadvantages of the policy of divestment which the Grace supports, to be completed in so far as possible in line with the timescale envisaged in the Grace. The Council will keep the Regent House informed as to the terms of reference and membership of the body tasked with preparing the report and as to the exact timetable for delivery of the report, which will be made available to the Regent House.’

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They wrote a note at the time that the Grace: “cannot operate as a mandate in respect of the exercise of their fiduciary responsibility for the University’s investment practices.”


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Mountain View

Analysis: Working group report a landmark, but fails to understand the pro-divestment movement

They proposed instead that they would “respond by commissioning a report specifically into the advantages and disadvantages of the policy of divestment which the Grace supports,” culminating in the long-awaited divestment working group report published in May this year.

In their review, Zero Carbon argued that Council’s response to the divestment working group, which decided against full divestment, “was an attempt to withhold the Grace once approved”. Their argument hinges on how the approval and rejection of a Grace is defined.

Though not as clear-cut as a usual approval, Council’s eventual authorisation of the Grace with the caveat meant that they were not obligated at the time to present what is known as a ‘capital-R’ Report – a specific type of written announcement to Regent House published in the Cambridge University Reporter – required only when the submission of a Grace is rejected outright by the Council.

A ‘capital-R’ Report is mandated to be followed by a discussion of Regent House, creating a provision for Council to be held accountable for any decisions to dismiss a Grace.

Explained: What is Special Ordinance A(i)7, the University regulation that Zero Carbon argues Council is in violation of?

Section 7(a) of the University’s Special Ordinances lays out the procedure if the Council decides to authorise the submission of, or decide to reject a Regent House Grace, in which they must publish a ‘capital-R’ Report.

In full, the special ordinance says: “Subject to the exercise by the Vice-Chancellor of the powers conferred by Section 6 or by Ordinances made under that Section, the Council shall consider any Grace or amendment initiated under Section 5, and either (i) shall authorize the submission of the Grace or amendment to the Regent House or (ii) shall publish a Report giving reasons for its decision to withhold authorization and recommending the Regent House to approve that decision. If such approval is not given, the Council shall, not later than the end of the term next following, submit the Grace or amendment to the Regent House.”

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Because the Grace calling for full divestment was authorised by Council, it is not explicitly mandated by the University’s constitution or special ordinances to produce a ‘capital-R’ Report.


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Mountain View

Interview: Student campaigners speak out as Council divestment decision sinks in

When the decision in June was announced, it was published in the Reporter as a notice – not a ‘capital-R’ Report. “As a result,” campaigners wrote, “the Regent House and other members of the university were left with no path through which to question, debate, or attempt to democratically overturn the divestment decision.”

Campaigners have called for the vice-chancellor to declare that the existing report on the decision in June “has no validity”.

The vice-chancellor now has three months to respond to the review. The constitution lays out three courses of action open to him:

  • To decide that there has been no such contravention of the constitution.
  • To decide that there was a contravention, but that it did not render the decision invalid.
  • To decide that there was a contravention, and to further decide on an appropriate course of action to rectify it.

The University has been contacted for comment.

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