April 23, 2013

Voting on principle

Students should support investment referendum if they favor productive dialogue on social responsibility.

Two years ago, students voted overwhelmingly in favor of a Student Government (SG) ballot referendum that proposed the creation of Socially Responsible Investment Committee (SRIC) to advise University investment policy on matters of ethics. Despite its passage, this referendum failed to result in the formation of an SRIC. However, students will have another chance next week to support a similarly-minded referendum in the upcoming SG elections, this time drafted by student members of Stop Funding Climate Change (SFCC). Students should vote “yes” to the referendum, given that it makes a strong statement that could feasibly lead the University to incorporate student input into its investment practices.

Nearly 80 percent of voters in the 2011 SG election supported the SRIC referendum. The vote led to a series of meetings between administrators and student representatives of the group that proposed the referendum. However, due to the complicated nature of the University’s investment setup of 200 subcontracted investment managers and its commitment to political neutrality, it became apparent that the administration did not envision a place for an SRIC—or its advice—in its plans. Two new proposals were put forth by the then–Undergraduate Liaison to the Board of Trustees that backtracked on the target of an SRIC. He suggested that the University survey its investment managers regarding how they include social factors in asset analyses and that it invest a small part of its endowment in a Community Development Financial Institution. While these compromises were better than nothing, they certainly lacked substance relative to the referendum’s original goal.

This year’s referendum, if passed, would amount to a clear statement of some of the student body’s principles regarding investment. On the SG ballot, the referendum will ask, “Should the University shift its investment strategy to account for the environmental impact of oil, gas, and coal used by the companies it invests in?” The statement contrasts with the previous referendum in that it does not ask whether students support a new institutional body, but rather asks whether students support an institutional shift in the University’s approach to investing its endowment. A restatement of the overwhelming student support for the 2011 measure this time around would preserve the core principle without hinging on the implementation of a specific instrument of enforcing that principle.

Another way in which this referendum is distinct from the 2011 ballot item is that it does not encompass, in students’ views, all potential issues that have arisen as complications to University investment policy. Firms with a history of not honoring worker’s rights or of engaging in business in nations run by corrupt regimes, for instance, are not covered by its language concerning the “environmental impact” of businesses receiving University investment. Given the University’s obligation to protect its investments, dividing issues into separate referenda will well serve the efforts of students serious about bringing those issues to the University’s attention without allowing administrators to dismiss them for fear of immediately surrendering financial oversight. If considered separately, each measure would be given the full attention it deserves. Furthermore, this separation would provide a way for the University to ease into the process of taking student input in investment matters into account.

From the outset, there ought to be no concern, as there justly could have been in 2011, that the referendum’s specific goal leaves itself vulnerable to compromise. If the student body votes “yes,” the University should be more inclined to respect its decision as it would entail accommodating a point of view rather than any undue institutional encroachment on the part of students. This focused and practical approach to affirming student opinion on key issues seems constructive and, crucially, not imposing. While students who support the creation of an SRIC should continue to encourage that initiative long-term, individual referenda are a far more immediate and realistic way of lobbying for progress.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.