University Council meets in Old Schools several times per termNoella Chye

A fifth of the University’s executive decision-making, the University Council, has dissented from this year’s annual Council report – the first time in at least ten years.

Five members of University Council – Professor Ross Anderson, Professor Nick Gay, student representative Marcel Llavero Pasquina, Graduate Union president Sofia Ropek-Hewson, and CUSU President Evie Aspinall – wrote in a note of dissent that they are unable to support this year’s report because of a lack of transparency in the University’s Investment Office.

They wrote: “We cannot properly discharge our duty as trustees of the University if we are arbitrarily and persistently denied the access to such documents, in particular, to those of the Investment Board.”

In full: Note of dissent in this year’s Annual Report of the Council

We are unable to support the Annual Report of the Council to the Regent House. Council members are entitled under Standing Order 10.2 to see all papers of subsidiary committees. We cannot properly discharge our duty as trustees of the University if we are arbitrarily and persistently denied access to such documents, in particular, to those of the Investment Board.

Following the disclosure in the Paradise Papers that the Cambridge University Endowment Fund had invested in Shell via an offshore company – contrary to what Council members had been led to believe about energy investments – one of us (Professor Anderson) demanded access to the Investment Board's papers. This access has been denied, as Professor Anderson reported to the Regent House on 23 January 2018 in the Discussion of last year's Report

Professor Dame Athene Donald’s Divestment Working Group, reporting earlier this year, subsequently remarked on the opacity of the Investment Office and recommended that transparency be improved (pp. 13–14 and Recommendation 6). Council members have since demanded access to Investment Board papers on more than one occasion; this has either been denied with various excuses, or access has been promised and not delivered. We accept that there are some circumstances where investment decisions cannot be made public – such as venture capital investments in startups that are still in stealth mode. However that is no argument for preventing us as trustees from seeing the Board papers in confidence, as is normal with the papers of all other committees that report to Council.

Signed by:

Professor Ross Anderson

Professor Nicholas Gay

Evie Aspinall

Marcel Llavero Pasquina

Sofia Ropek-Hewson

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Every year, University Council publishes a report detailing its conduct, reports from committees, and actions from decisions made during Council meetings. One of the bodies which reports to Council is Cambridge’s Investment Board, which advises Council through its Finance Committee on matters relating to the University’s endowment.

The note of dissent cited Council members’ repeated requests for papers from the Investment Board, all of which have been denied.

In November last year, Council member Professor Ross Anderson, who is among the dissenters, requested access to Investment Board papers following The Guardian’s Paradise Papers revelations, which revealed that £1.3m of the University’s £6.3bn endowment – the largest of any university in Europe – was invested in offshore fund Coller International, which had its biggest investment, amounting to $1bn, in fossil fuels company Royal Dutch Shell.

Professor Anderson reported to Regent House, the University’s democratic decision-making body, that he had not received the papers during a discussion this January on last year’s annual report. In a statement to Regent House, he wrote: “I can conceive of no valid reason for keeping it confidential from the trustees of this University. We are responsible, after all.”

Professor Anderson noted that he had signed last year’s Annual Report only after having been “reassured by the Chief Financial Officer and the Vice-Chancellor … that they will raise the issue of access by members of the Council firmly at the February meeting of the Investment Board.”

He said: “… if the University’s trustees continue to be unable to find out where our money is invested then I cannot imagine being able, as a trustee, to sign the Report again in 2018.”

Following the release of the Divestment Working Group report – a milestone report a year in the making – earlier this year in June, which recommended greater transparency of the University’s investment processes, Council members repeatedly requested access to papers again. They said: “This has either [been] denied with various excuses, or access has been promised and not delivered.”

Explained: What is the Divestment Working Group report, and why was it considered a milestone?

The divestment working group was established in May 2017, “following interest from the wider University, to consider the question of divestment from businesses involved in fossil fuel extraction.” The group’s ultimate aim was to publish a report that would help the highest levels of Cambridge leadership decide the University’s divestment trajectory.

The divestment working group report, which was released this May, was a year in the making. Setting out 19 recommendations aiming to nudge Cambridge towards a future aligned with a vision of reform, it revealed members caught between two perspectives on the essentiality of divestment, with this division prompting the need for a further meeting in June. In this June meeting, the Council made a landmark decision against full divestment of the University’s endowment, opting instead for a ‘considered’ divestment approach and accepting the majority of the recommendations laid out in the controversial divestment working group report.

This came after more than 60 Cambridge academics signed an open letter calling on the University to “reject” the reports recommendations, claiming that the report “represents a transparent attempt to thwart the direct and positive action of divestment”.

The terms of the working group’s creation specified that two student representatives sit on the board. Prior to the report’s release, Alice Guillaume, one of these representatives and a Zero Carbon member, resigned from the working group in early March after a leaked draft report recommended only partial divestment.

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The issue of transparency in the University’s investment processes has been raised repeatedly by activists and campaigners.

At Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope’s first open meeting held in March this year in response to Old Schools student occupiers’ demands, Toope responded to accusations of complicity with human rights abuses in Nigeria through Shell investments, saying: “How do we know that we’re investing in Shell?”

Toope claimed the University's investments are held in “funds of funds”, meaning the exact companies it has investments in are unclear. One student shouted in response: “Invest only in transparent things.”


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Student campaigners speak out as Council divestment decision sinks in

Dissenting Council members wrote in their note of dissent: “We accept that there are some circumstances where investment decisions cannot be made public – such as venture capital investments in startups that are still in stealth mode.

“However that is no argument for preventing us as trustees from seeing the Board papers in confidence, as is normal with the papers of all other committees that report to Council.”

Today, 200 Cambridge academics released an open letter calling for greater transparency in the operations of the Investment Office and Board, and for more than half of the Board to comprise elected staff and student representatives.

The letter described the Investment Office as the “stewards of the resources that will sustain this institution’s future – and deeply impact the public it serves”.

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