Investment in Darfur was never certain, Zimmer says

The University’s holdings in Darfur during last year’s investment controversy were minimal and may no longer exist, according to University President Robert Zimmer.

By Michael Lipkin

The University’s holdings in Darfur during last year’s investment controversy were minimal and may no longer exist, according to University President Robert Zimmer.

Last year, the University chapter of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), a nationwide student group advocating divestment in companies that support or deal with the Sudan, pushed the administration to discontinue investments in the country. After several months of deliberation, the Board of Trustees ultimately decided against divestment, citing the Kalven Report, drafted in 1967 in response to student protests over the Vietnam War. The report restricts the University from taking political positions that could endanger its culture of academic freedom.

Zimmer told the Maroon last month that in response to STAND’s advocacy the Board of Trustees asked him about the state of the University’s investments. According to the president, he then asked Chief Investment Officer Peter Stein to determine whether there was any money invested in Darfur.

“At that time, at the best we could tell, we had a very diminuous holding in one relevant company, which I reported to the Board,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer stressed that such definitive statements about the nature of the University’s investments are difficult to make, as well as to keep continuous track of. Because the University invests in funds, as opposed to direct ownership in a company, it is not always readily apparent what companies the University has an interest in, Zimmer said.

“Sometimes we don’t just invest in funds, but funds of funds. So, in many cases you’re three orders of magnitude away from knowing what the answer is,” Zimmer said.

According to Zimmer, due to such indirect advisement of the Investment Office and the dynamic changes in the market, it is only possible to take a snapshot of investments.

A source knowledgeable about the operations of the Investment Office and only willing to speak on the condition of anonymity corroborated Zimmer’s statements and said further that it was highly likely that at any given time the University’s investments in Darfur are minimal, if existent at all.

The source said that Peter Stein had mentioned in August that the University had no money invested in Darfur and that generally the Office wouldn’t invest there, regardless of the campus politics surrounding the country.

“It’s not stable enough to go into Africa,” the source said. “The economies there are too risky and unstable. And while University investments are fairly aggressive, they aren’t particularly aggressive in taking risks in different geographic regions that aren’t established yet.”

The source added that while the University is often many steps removed from the companies it gives money to, it is still unlikely that the University had significant ties to funds that do business in Darfur. The Investment Office, he said, likes to hire fund managers who invest very specifically—industrial manufacturers in the Midwest, for example—so it would be difficult to have substantial money in Darfur, given that fund managers specializing in that region aren’t seriously considered by the University.

“It’s unlikely that the University would even take a meeting with a person who wants to raise a fund to invest in Sub-Saharan Africa,” the source said.

Vice President for Strategic Initiatives David Greene said that even if the University hadn’t held any interest in companies involved with Darfur last year, the administration still would have taken a stance on the question of divestment.

“These are still relevant issues whether or not there are actual funds involved,” Greene said. “We have to take these questions with all the seriousness they imply. There were fundamental questions that deserved serious consideration and shouldn’t be tossed aside.”

According to Zimmer, he would have been ducking the issue if he hadn’t taken a substantive position.

“I didn’t think it was the right stance to try to avoid the question,” Zimmer said. “This University has never been afraid of disagreement, never been afraid of taking a position that people are going to argue with.”

Aliza Levine, former co-chair of STAND, led many of last year’s efforts to persuade the University to divest. Levine said that even if the administration had reported no investments in Darfur, it would not have been enough to satisfy STAND’s goal to get the University to declare an unconditional divestment.

“We would have been grateful, which we would be today if we weren’t invested,” Levine said. “But it’s not about whether at 2 p.m. this Wednesday we have an investment. It’s whether on a regular basis we have our money in companies that do business in the Sudan.”