NEWS

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February 3, 2009

Yale students criticize University investments

A group of Yale students spoke to their university’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR) on Thursday about ethical concerns involving the school’s investments in HEI Hotels and Resorts, a company they alleged reduces employee wages and health benefits and discourages worker unionization. The University of Chicago, Harvard, and Princeton are other major investors in HEI.

The Yale students asked that their university use its influence as an HEI stakeholder to pressure the company into better treatment of workers. The students presented a report detailing the problems of HEI workers and recommending that Yale respond in support of workers.

At the University of Chicago, students have also communicated with the University administration about the ethical concerns of investing in HEI. In November, Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL) wrote a letter to President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum urging them to reconsider its investments in HEI.

It is the University’s policy not to comment on individual investments, but spokesman Steve Kloehn cited the University’s 1967 Kalven Report, which restricts the University from taking political positions that could endanger its culture of academic freedom.

“To perform its mission in society,” the Kalven committee wrote, “a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political…pressures.”

Since SOUL brought the HEI investment to the administration’s attention, they have taken no action.

SOUL member and fourth-year Luke Carman said he was very disappointed with the lack of response from the U of C administration. SOUL is planning on bringing an HEI employee to campus to help raise awareness and encourage change.

“The money the University has invested in HEI is not just going towards some amorphous end.  It is funding an organization that refuses to give [workers] the opportunity to organize, and raise their own standard of living,” said Carman. “The University is paying for HEI to take these steps, and so members of the University deserve to know where their endowment money is going.”

The Yale report advocated that their university use its investor status to help employees improve their working conditions without resorting to a boycott, which could be detrimental to both workers and Yale’s investments in the company. The ACIR did not promise to follow the students’ advice, but Rebecca Eisenbrey, a fourth-year at Yale involved in presenting the report, felt that they were responsive and in open dialogue about the issue.

“We wrote the report to present them with the facts, with the ultimate goal of convincing them to take action and urge the university to write a letter to HEI asking the company to respect the dignity of their workers,” said Eisenbrey. “After almost an hour of questions, Jonathan Macey, the committee chair, agreed that the interrogation, intimidation, and firing of pro-union employees is, in fact, unethical. While we did not get any concrete commitments from the ACIR, we look forward to a continued dialogue and are optimistic about the ultimate results.”

The report highlighted ethical problems in HEI’s worker treatment, including low wages, poor health benefits, refusal to improve working conditions that lead to injury, discrimination based on race and ethnicity, and the lack of a fair process for unionization.

“While Yale’s investment in HEI is not necessarily a symptom of any general disregard for social responsibility on the part of the Investments Office, it does suggest that anything can happen behind closed doors… and that only greater transparency can ensure the responsibility of the endowment,” said Eisenbey.