With the campaign for the Senior Class Gift in full swing, I’ve been reflecting on my time as a UChicago student. There are many things I’ve loved about my life here. I loved running around campus as part of the track and cross-country teams, I love the diversity of student backgrounds and viewpoints, I love the extreme amount of coffee I imbibe... the list goes on and on. Most of all, though, I love the spirit of intellectual inquiry that abounds among students and faculty. Universities should be communities of scholars debating, discussing, and making progress together. In my opinion, no place fulfills that ideal better than our university.
And yet, I’m not so naive as to deny that the University also plays a massive corporate role. I know that my gift will funnel into a massive pool of money, directly or indirectly, that the administration and Board of Trustees use in a wide range of ways. At over $6 billion, our endowment is the ninth-largest among private universities in the United States. And while the endowment is used sparingly, the financial leverage it provides is indicative of the capitalistic clout the University wields. Without the endowment and other income generated by tuition, donations, and the University’s extensive financial dealings, the classroom experience I value so dearly would be impossible. But the administration and Board of Trustees’ reluctance to examine the impact their financial choices make on the world is dismaying and unethical.
On a basic level, it shows that the University is willing to support intellectual inquiry only up to a point. As soon as a critical eye turns toward the University’s own financial dealings and practices, our culture of rigorous debate disappears. “Be sure to question your professors and interrogate Marx’s theory of surplus labor and we’ll keep Bartlett stocked, order more rare books, and worry about keeping the lights on—just don’t ask us how we’re doing it,” the administration and Board seem to say.
So how are the administration and trustees doing it? How do our investments work?
It’s very hard to tell. The administration is extremely reluctant to divulge information about its investment policies, other than to give the occasional statement about conflicts of interests in hard-to-find four-year-old reports. Unlike at peer schools such as Harvard and Yale, there is no body of students and faculty that advises investment policy. Instead, investment decisions are made by the University’s off-campus investment office. The group that oversees and audits these decisions is the Board of Trustees’ Standing Committee on Investments. Presumably, if you wanted to find out more about our investment policy, these would be the people to talk to—but there is no list of which trustees compose this important subcommittee. They meet at an undisclosed location, at an undisclosed time, release no meeting minutes, and do not allow outside comment.
Clearly, financial transparency is lacking. The only time the administration seems willing to discuss its investments is when controversy emerges. In 2007, after protests on-campus and nationwide, President Zimmer released a statement about the possibility of divesting from companies associated with the genocide in Darfur. He thanked students for their contributions to the debate and then dismissed their demands. The Board of Trustees had decided, in secret, not to divest.
President Zimmer and the Board justified their decision using the Kalven Report. Created in 1967, in the midst of the Vietnam War and a wave of student activism, the Kalven Report affirmed the University’s commitment to neutrality on political and social issues. Forty years later, President Zimmer and the Board were using the Kalven Report as a shield. As those of us who’ve passed through Sosc know, not acting is a form of action in and of itself: By refusing to divest, the administration and Board were implicitly endorsing companies perpetrating the worst crimes imaginable.
But our opaque investment procedures and glaring lack of oversight are problems regardless of the publicity of the issue at stake. In the most recent year of publicly available financial information released by the Securities and Exchange Commission, our University continued to financially support companies that quicken the pace of climate change, like ExxonMobil and even Arch Coal, which practices mountaintop removal mining. Moreover, the University remains the sole major investor in HEI Hotels & Resorts, a hospitality management company infamous for its sweatshop conditions and unjust labor practices. Our University’s continued support of HEI puts us at odds with schools like Harvard, Brown, Yale, Princeton, and Notre Dame, all of whom have publicly refused to reinvest in the firm.
Clearly, the administration and Board of Trustees have, to some extent, chosen to invest in these questionable companies. And although much of our financial dealings are done indirectly, through private equity funds and other financial instruments, it is still possible to check investment decisions in a fair and open process. Many of our peer schools—including Harvard, Dartmouth, and Yale—have set up investment committees made up of students, faculty, and alumni in order to advise the administration and Board on just investment practices. Doesn’t that approach seem more in line with our University’s commitment to free and open inquiry?
All fourth-years now have a choice to make. As UChicago has taught us to do so well, we should think about what causes we choose to support, and how we support them. By donating to the Senior Class Gift, we tacitly support the opaque financial policies of the University. Even if our money won’t be directly invested, we’ll be signaling our approval by increasing the amount of money the University has to invest. We should all consider the legacy we are leaving behind at UChicago, as well as what it says. Do I feel comfortable leaving the University more money to spend as it wishes? Or do I want to spend time supporting the mission of the University as a place of self-reflection and intellectual inquiry? Rather than give the University a gift of money, my gift will be to help it reconsider its actions and beliefs through self-reflection in the spirit of intellectual inquiry.
Julia Sizek is a fourth-year in the College majoring in international studies and anthropology.