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President Meric Gertler’s response to members of Occupy for Palestine

Dear members of Occupy for Palestine:

Thank you for sharing your concerns and interests in our meeting on April 3, 2024. I accepted your meeting request to further my understanding of the diverse perspectives and experiences represented on our campuses. My colleagues and I heard your anger, frustration and disappointment. This continues to be a troubling and difficult time for many in our community, on all sides of this issue. We express our profound grief on behalf of all those experiencing distress, anguish and loss. We encourage those in need to seek assistance through the many programs offered by the University (https://www.utoronto.ca/utogether/supports-and-resources) or in the wider community. Furthermore, we strongly encourage any students experiencing discrimination or harassment to seek consultation, support and resolution through established University processes outlined at https://www.viceprovoststudents.utoronto.ca/student-resources/.

Occupy for Palestine (O4P) has called on the University to “terminate all partnerships with Israeli academic institutions that operate in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or sustain the apartheid policies, occupation and illegal settlement of these territories.” This demand is at odds with the University’s longstanding opposition to academic boycotts, dating back at least to the 1980s.[1] Such demands are antithetical to the University’s firm conviction that the best way to protect human rights is by staunchly defending and promoting academic freedom, freedom of expression, and the unfettered circulation of ideas within the global scholarly community. We have consistently emphasized that it is both inappropriate and, ultimately, counterproductive to single out academics working or studying in a particular country, and to hold them accountable for the actions or policies of their country’s government. Faculty and students are often among the most trenchant critics of their own government’s policies or actions. Events over the past year confirm that Israeli academics – as well as university leaders – have been amongst the most vociferous critics of the current government and its policies.

Moreover, academic collaboration and the free circulation of ideas and people on a global scale are essential to universities’ collective mission of producing new knowledge and advancing understanding. Especially in troubled times such as these, universities have a special responsibility to further enlightenment, and to enable and accommodate dialogue. Today’s pressing issues will be best addressed by scholars – protected by academic freedom – working together to deepen our understanding of these challenging issues and contribute to finding solutions.

For these reasons, the University of Toronto has engaged in longstanding partnerships with institutions globally, including some Israeli universities. Current collaborations between faculty at the University of Toronto and Israeli universities include a joint project to address hate speech in the region and to foster supportive engagement with Palestinian students.

Because academic boycotts of any kind are antithetical to the University’s fundamental mission and values, we firmly reject O4P’s demand to terminate such partnerships.

Let me now address your request for the University to “divest its endowment, pension fund, and other financial holdings from all companies that provide Israel with military goods or services which sustain the Israeli apartheid, occupation and illegal settlement of the Palestinian Territories, as well as the ongoing attacks on Gaza.”

First, as we mentioned in our meeting, the University’s pension funds were transferred to the University Pension Plan Ontario (UPP) effective July 1, 2021, and are now managed by the UPP Board of Trustees.

Second, the University’s Policy on Social and Political Issues with Respect to University Divestment notes in its opening Preamble that “As a general matter, the University does not take positions on social or political issues apart from those directly pertinent to higher education and academic research.” Accordingly, “the University will not consider proposals for restrictions on its investments that require the institution to take sides in matters that are properly the subject of ongoing academic inquiry and debate.” It further notes, as a corollary, that the University’s response to any requests for divestment “must be governed by the fundamental place of diversity of opinion within its community. Except in those situations in which the University must settle on an answer to controversial questions about how best to achieve its academic mission, the University risks abandoning its core values if it takes sides in ongoing debates and is perceived to be advancing a specific political or social position.”

Notwithstanding the above fundamental points, let me make clear that the investment of the University’s endowment, which is comprised of endowed gifts to the University, is managed by the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM), and does not hold any direct investments in companies. The Expendable Funds Investment Pool (EFIP), consisting of expendable gifts and working capital, holds direct investments in fixed-income products, but not in company securities.

More generally, the University of Toronto Asset Management’s investment process follows a ‘manager of managers’ approach, which means that they do not buy and sell investment instruments such as bonds and stocks. Instead, they seek out and allocate capital to best-in-class third-party investment managers, who in turn undertake these activities. In allocating capital to these investment managers, UTAM does so substantially through investments in the commingled and pooled fund vehicles that they offer. The underlying securities held in these vehicles often change from day to day (and even intra-day) and are not disclosed publicly by third-party managers out of concern for protecting their competitive advantage. UTAM has confirmed that there are no direct holdings in the portfolios under their management that meet the criteria outlined in your demand.

Every year, UTAM publishes the asset mix composition of the University of Toronto’s endowment portfolio compared to its benchmark reference portfolio – both on its website and in its annual report. UTAM also publishes the names of its external investment managers engaged for the University’s portfolios, in which more than $1 million CAD is invested. In order to comply with subscription agreements, support competitive advantage for our asset managers, and retain our ability to invest in the highest-performing externally managed funds, the University will not alter its disclosure practices in response to your demand to “publicly disclose all investments (including names of holdings and portfolio shares) from endowments, the pension fund, short-term working capital assets, and other financial holdings of the university”.

We support our students’ right to lawful protest and to advocate for causes they believe in. That said, the University does not condone the actions taken by Occupy for Palestine inside Simcoe Hall nor other activities that disrupt the learning and working environment. I respectfully decline your invitation to meet again on May 3, though official pathways through which students can direct their activism remain available to you.


Meric S. Gertler 

[1] See for example the 2007 letter from my predecessor, former President David Naylor, to Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the British University and College Union. I draw liberally on Professor Naylor’s comments in what follows.