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An imperfect union

SOUL's push for divestment demonstrates a misunderstanding of the University's role

As its name suggests, Students Organizing United for Labor (SOUL) has, in recent years, been an outspoken voice in support of union workers both on and off campus. But while there’s nothing wrong with the group’s tireless advocacy on behalf of organized labor, there is something wrong with arguments that exemplify a fundamental misunderstanding of the inner workings of the University’s business.

SOUL’s latest protest seizes upon allegations that the company Hei Hotel and Resorts, which the University has invested in, mistreats its employees; the group wrote to President Zimmer and Provost Rosenbaum urging the University to withdraw its holdings from the corporation. SOUL’s main charge seems to be that the hotel workers in question are forced to clean twice as many rooms as their unionized counterparts, a grievance, the argument goes, that could be righted if the University would wield its financial influence to promote union causes.

Even if the University did feel compelled to take a stand on the workplace conditions of a hotel, it would be a complicated endeavor at odds with its current system of managing its investments. University endowments are, by nature, difficult to pin down. A total of 194 different firms currently manage various aspects of the University endowment, and those firms have a great deal of freedom to invest as they please. At any given moment, neither the Board of Trustees nor President Zimmer knows with much certainty which companies the University has holdings in. It is disconnected from reality to say that the University should attempt to leverage its investment in Hei Hotels in order to effect some sort of change in internal company policy.

Looking beyond the logistics of endowment investments, SOUL’s arguments also fly in the face of recent history. In response to the group’s demands, University spokesman Steve Kloehn cited the Kalven Report, the administration’s policy that prevents the University from taking political stands so as not to compromise academic freedom. Most recently, the Kalven Report was used as a rationale by the University not to formalize a policy against doing business in Sudan. Considering that the Board of Trustees deemed genocide insufficient reason for divestment, it’s difficult to see why SOUL would believe the Board would support divestment on the grounds that a company doesn’t use organized labor.

SOUL’s means—asking for what amounts to a fundamental overhaul of how the University does business—only serve to trivialize its ends. Maybe Hei Hotel and Resorts really is an unjust employer, and if so, a campus organization could genuinely help raise awareness of the issue. Ultimately, though, it’s not the role of the University to play housekeeper for companies it’s only tangentially connected to.

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