University of California to decide about Sudan investments

A vote is expected Thursday. If the huge system votes to divest, it could be a catalyst for other college movements.

First there was Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Brown, and Amherst. The string of private universities has followed the state of Illinois's lead, which last May approved pulling billions in investment out of Sudan to protest political violence there.

Now as the University of California (UC) board of regents votes on its own plan Thursday, it marks a tipping point for nationwide activism on college campuses and other state legislatures, student organizers say. Because of the university's size, public status, and $66 billion endowment, the vote is expected to either move the US- Sudan-divestment movement forward or set it back.

"The University of California is arguably the flagship state university system in the country and a bellwether for opinion in how to proceed," says Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor and researcher on Sudan who is credited with igniting grassroots activism on US Sudan divestment there in September 2004.

Students started the movement, which lobbyists and educators picked up. Now a dozen state legislatures and dozens of colleges - including the University of Chicago, Brandeis, and Northeastern - are considering divestment.

More than 1,000 students across California are expected at Thursday's meeting to draw attention to the ethnic violence in Darfur, which has left 400,000 dead and at least 2 million homeless since 2003.

Aiming to clone the successful actions that helped end apartheid in South Africa, the current divestment movement examines and questions the investment of billions by universities, state pension funds, and other investors in companies that directly or indirectly help the Sudanese government's military action against civilians.

Officials say the UC system's Sudan-related investments could total $2.6 billion in more than 70 multinational companies.

"With this century's first genocide running unchecked after three years in Sudan, American universities are obligated to address the hundreds of millions of dollars they have invested in companies that are facilitating the Khartoum government's genocide," says Jason Miller, a UC San Francisco medical student who co-chairs the UC Sudan Disinvestment Task Force.

In January, regents established a committee of university investment advisers alongside the president and treasurer. They put together a plan with student input, taking into account concerns about further harming Sudan's disaffected regions and the university's own finances.

While drafting the plan, students attracted many economic luminaries, legislators, and religious leaders including the California state treasurer, the state attorney general, and US House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. The process has helped direct attention to potential investment alternatives known as Sudan-free investments, which have gained momentum since Illinois passed legislation related to its state investments.

"It has been the students that investigated alternatives and are challenging universities and state legislators to look at their portfolios and do the right thing using the most powerful economic tools we have," says state Sen. Jacqueline Collins who sponsored the legislation that took effect Jan. 21.

International action against Sudan, meanwhile, has been blocked in the United Nations Security Council by China and Russia, which have economic interests with the Khartoum government in PetroChina, an oil company, and via Russian military arms sales.

Mr. Miller and co-chair Adam Sterling say they have spent months organizing letter-writing campaigns, speaking with legislators and university officials, celebrities, religious leaders, and social groups.

They are fighting three arguments from opponents: that disinvestment can harm the country's path to democratization and improved living standards; that potential disinvestment costs can negatively affect university investments; and that other noneconomic concerns may drive university investments in the future.

"We have tried to demonstrate a link between certain industries such as oil and energy and the Sudanese's military to perpetrate its killings," says Mr. Sterling. "Because not all economic investment is equal, we are asking UC for divestment only from companies that clearly contribute to government revenue or provide negligible substantive benefit to the vast majority of Sudanese."

Switching to Sudan-free investments can have minimal costs since a growing number of investment brokers give a list of international companies that make the same products or provide the same service, observers say.

"The model we have used seems to be working well," says Joseph Clary, principal consultant for Illinois disinvestment. "We have learned that if you delay your implementation over time, there doesn't have to be a net loss to investors."

Student activists also say that only twice in UC history have nonfinancial concerns been key factors in university investment decisions. Once was when university officials objected to apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. In 2001, the university took its money out of tobacco companies.

"If there ever was a time to use a financial tool like this, it is a time when victims cannot speak for themselves because they are being systematically eliminated," says Miller. "There is no more important time than now."

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