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Our Take: UBC's Statement on BDS

Updated:  at 7:42 PM

The recent issue raised by the Alma Mater Society proposing that UBC divest from nine companies in Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories is a controversial one for those in favour and those opposed. We have heard positions on both sides of the BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) issue from students, faculty, staff and alumni.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine raises many questions that are not unique to our university. Indeed, universities around the world grapple with them. As a globally influential university with a diverse student body, the UBC community is privileged to observe, discuss and participate in issues of global significance every day.

As a community of learning, it is incumbent on UBC to place paramount value on the free and lawful expression of ideas and viewpoints. Positions on complex geo-political issues that protect human rights are best made by guarding academic freedom and freedom of expression in an environment that supports constructive and respectful debate. But constructive and respectful debate cannot occur when members of one group are made to feel personally attacked for their identity or where tolerance and inclusiveness are not fostered in productive discourse. We work to avoid polarization on the basis of student identity, religion, or political beliefs so that students are safe and free from harassment. Therefore, UBC’s fundamental commitment to the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion must be reflected in all that we do and say in pursuit of our academic mission.

For these reasons, the university does not support BDS and, therefore, cannot support the AMS motion to urge UBC and the Board of Governors to divest.

UBC is committed to serve as an inclusive forum for free and respectful debate to advance knowledge and understanding. Through productive discourse and through teaching, learning and research, we will continue to contribute to diplomacy and the ongoing efforts to find peaceful paths forward in the Middle East.

— Santa J. Ono, President and Vice-Chancellor1

Our Take

The statement above highlights the shortcomings of the stance taken by UBC regarding the BDS movement and the divestment proposal. The university’s emphasis on free and lawful expression of ideas, while noble in principle, serves in this context to sidestep taking a meaningful stand against what we view as ongoing injustices and human rights violations against Palestinians. The university’s decision not to support BDS or the AMS motion for divestment is a failure to confront systemic issues and an unwillingness to leverage UBC’s influence for ethical purposes.

The focus on “avoiding polarization” and ensuring an environment “free from harassment” is a veiled attempt to suppress strong advocacy and action that challenges the status quo. This approach prioritizes the comfort of some over the rights and freedoms of others.

The reaffirmation of commitment to principles of “equity, diversity, and inclusion” is hollow if the university does not actively engage in practices that directly confront and address issues of injustice and oppression. The mention of striving for peaceful paths forward and contributing to diplomacy is overly passive and is complicit in the face of systemic violations requiring urgent and decisive action.

The university’s stance is a disappointing reflection of broader tendencies within academic institutions to maintain what they perceive as neutrality on issues of grave injustice, thus missing crucial opportunities for advocacy and change.

Dr. Bacon’s Follow-up

A year and a half ago, former UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Santa Ono issued the statement that the university does not support BDS. This remains the university’s position. We also reaffirm our commitment to respectful dialogue and reasoned debate as the best way to advance our shared knowledge and understanding of any issue.

— Benoit-Antoine Bacon, President and Vice-Chancellor1

Our Take

The reaffirmation of UBC’s stance against supporting the BDS movement is a continuation of the university’s avoidance of taking a significant stand on human rights issues related to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This is a clear indication that UBC prioritizes a superficial peace and the appearance of neutrality over engaging in meaningful actions that could contribute to justice for Palestinians.

The emphasis on “respectful dialogue” and “reasoned debate” is insufficient and dismissive of the urgency and severity of the injustices faced by Palestinians. Such language is an attempt to placate both sides without addressing the systemic power imbalances, ongoing occupation and settlement expansion.

Furthermore, by merely calling for dialogue without acknowledging the need for concrete actions, such as divestment from companies involved in the occupation, UBC is effectively siding with the oppressor by maintaining a status quo that allows injustices to persist. This stance is a failure of the university to leverage its influence and resources to stand against violations of international law and human rights.

Dr. Bacon’s statement is a disappointing reaffirmation of so-called neutrality in the face of systemic injustice, highlighting a continued reluctance by UBC to align its institutional values with actions that support Palestinian rights, dignity and lives.

SUO’s Letter

The SUO of UBC, representing over 12,000 students, urged the UBC Board of Governors to divest the university’s endowment fund from nine companies involved in Israeli settlements in Palestine. Citing the importance of UBC Okanagan’s role as an international institution and its commitment to global citizenship, this action follows the SUO’s previous divestments from oil, gas, tobacco, and military-related companies, and emphasizes the university’s alignment with responsible investment practices and international law concerning human rights violations by the identified companies.

Check out the SUO letter to the UBC Board of Governors and then read the response from UBC.

Our Take

The response from the UBC Board of Governors is a sophisticated form of evasion that uses the language of respect, compassion and responsible investing to sidestep taking a definitive stand on a critical human rights issue. The letter’s emphasis on the complexity of the issues, the need for rigorous due diligence, and adherence to a “Responsible Investing Policy” aligned with the “Principles for Responsible Investment” are justifications for inaction on the pressing matter of divestment from companies involved in Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.

By prioritizing legal and fiduciary obligations over ethical considerations, UBC is missing a vital opportunity to leverage its influence for social justice. The mention of ESG factors and the possibility of divestment being considered only within strict investment obligations functions as a loophole that allows the university to continue supporting companies that contribute to the perpetuation of illegal occupation.

The commitment to creating a space for open discussion and respectful debate is insufficient in the face of clear violations of international law and human rights. Dialogue, while important, must be coupled with actionable steps towards justice and accountability, rather than being used as a means to avoid taking a stand. The response is a demonstration of how institutions like UBC can use the language of responsibility, compassion, and legal obligation to mask a failure to confront and address systemic injustices actively.



  1. UBC’s Statement on BDS 2