Students apply ethics to college endowments
Three current or former student activists in Massachusetts discuss how they influenced their schools to change their investing strategies.
Some of the most ardent supporters of ethical investing don't have a portfolio. They're college students deeply concerned about social justice or the environment. Thirty years ago, you might have found them marching in the streets in protest. Today, they're just as likely to be knocking on boardroom doors, trying to influence the investment policies of their university's endowment fund. These hold billions of dollars' worth of stocks and bonds. If this student movement catches on, it will greatly expand the ethical investing world. Last week, the Monitor's Laurent Belsie discussed the topic with three current or former student activists in Massachusetts. Sarah Pritchard is a student at Mount Holyoke College and the student representative for the Responsible Endowments Coalition, a nationwide nonprofit that works for social change through university endowments. Kayvan Zainabadi led the Sudan divestment effort at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. John Pearson is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Boston who headed a campaign for responsible investment. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation: Why are students focusing on investments to change the world?Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Pearson: Students are beginning to realize that 51 of the top 100 biggest economies in the world are corporations. And so when they look at ... who has the biggest influence over world affairs, over child labor, over environmental issues, they're beginning to see it's corporations. And they make the connection to endowments.
What concerns students most?
Ms. Pritchard: Divestment from Sudan has been a big topic of interest ... and also climate change, I think, is on the minds of students these days.
How do university officials react when you urge them to divest from Sudan?
Mr. Zainabadi: They didn't say anything. They ignored us for about nine months out of the 12 months that it took for us to get a response from them.
No response at all?
Zainabadi: Their administrative assistants would say: "Thank you for your e-mail; we'll take it into consideration." No responses of substance. And this was [after] we drafted petitions that garnered 500 signatures from faculty, alumni, and students. We had resolutions pass at both the graduate student council level and undergraduate student government [level]. We had a letter-writing campaign. We had letters to the editor. And finally, a "die-in," which was a protest to represent the 80,000 people who had died in the eight months that MIT was taking to reach a decision.
Out on the streets?
Zainabadi: We laid on the main entrance to MIT – it's the dome [building], if you will. And 82 of us lay down for five minutes of silence that was broken by [Rev.] Gloria White-Hammond, who has been a big advocate on Darfur.
Zainabadi: Believe it or not, we had an announcement.... [But] they said we'd divest, as appropriate, given our investment principles, which ... are not known. So we had to, for another three months, approach the administration. And finally just last month, we had a definitive statement saying we had divested from the top 20 companies who are the worst offenders in Sudan.