A core tenet of anything worth calling a democracy is the principle that a person should have a say in decisions, proportionate to the degree that he or she is affected by them. This should certainly apply to the students, employees, faculty and alumni having some control over the University’s investments in objectionable corporations if we are to take democracy seriously.
UR currently has a $1.3 billion endowment, putting it in the top 50 in the country. The current investment policy, available for viewing at http://www.rochester.edu/endowment/policy, sets some sensible investment objectives to generate ‘investment returns which provide for both the present and future needs of the University.” Regarding the social impact of investments, the University has a mechanism in place for dealing with community inquiries: a student, faculty, staff member or alumnus can submit an inquiry to the Office of Institutional Resources regarding specific investment holdings and recieve a response on a ‘yes or no” basis.
For example, one can inquire as to whether the University is invested in Harris Corporation, which happens to profit immensely from the criminal occupation of Iraq. After receiving a confirmation (which one would also receive if for Dyncorp, Tyco, General Dynamics, Hill International, Stanley Inc., among others), the enquirer can then send that request for a vote on the holding to the Investment Committee of the University’s Board of Trustees. This committee has the ultimate decision-making power regarding the University’s complicity in matters of war and occupation and other unpleasant issues to which students need not pay attention.
Sometimes popular pressure can’t help but creep in and compel the University to divest from holdings involved in particularly horrendous political situations. Take the apartheid in South Africa. In 1987, UR, under the presidency of Dennis O’Brien, began investing more heavily in multinational corporations and decided to allow investments in companies profitting from the apartheid regime. The University community was outraged, and students held demonstrations denouncing the policy, eventually compelling the administration to divest.
The current administration has adopted a policy that prohibits ‘direct investments in companies identified as supporting the Sudanese government’s atrocities in Darfur.” The adoption of such socially responsible reforms to its investment policy is commendable.
Of course, these reforms aren’t ‘gifts” from above. They were fought for with dedicated and persistent activism from students and citizens, both here at UR and nationally. Reforms were won, not given.
It seems like a call for democratizing UR’s investment policy is long overdue. While calls for divestment from corporations involved in egregious criminality are currently necessary, a long-term vision for democratizing investment policy should be fought for as well. Objectionable investment holdings should be put to a vote by a democratically elected committee composed of representatives from the student body, the faculty, employees and alumni. This socially responsible investing committee would have veto power over particular holdings in corporations involved in, say, human rights violations.
To be clear, the University’s portfolio would be managed by hired money managers, as is currently the practice. Veto power by this ‘SRI” committee would be exercised with regard to corporations that violate principles of social responsibility, as laid out in a SRI Initiative.
This initiative would be grounded in a principled stance, in contrast to the unprincipled policy currently in place. The decisions that prohibited holdings in companies that were involved in South African apartheid and Darfur genocide, while praiseworthy, lack an underlying principle. After all, why oppose the atrocities in Darfur, though not in Iraq or Palestine? Violations of human rights conventions are violations regardless of the state committing them. In fact, we should pay particular attention to the crimes committed by our own state. As citizens, we have a unique responsibility and influence in stopping them. Self-serving political expediency surely can’t be a serious foundation for responsible citizenship by the University. A principled policy would be grounded in international law and already existing conventions surrounding labor, ecological and diversity standards.
A democratic committee for investments would bring much-needed transparency to a currently opaque, autocratic system. There seems to be no sensible reason why we shouldn’t have a say in the University’s investments in war profiteers. The only reason seems to be a desire to maintain power concentrated within the Board of Trustees and the administration.
But students can disagree. Just recently, students from Hampshire College, after engaging in a campaign to divest from companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine, won a divestment victory. Students from the New School in New York City, after occupying an academic building, compelled their administration to accept a democratic student committee on socially responsible investing. Such victories should inspire us to take similar action here at the UR. With the success of the recent UR Gaza Solidarity sit-in, the administration accepted the request to host a joint forum with students on the University’s investment policy. This will be an opportunity to let our voices be heard.
Written on behalf of SDS.
Brud is a member of
the class of 2010.