Campus, Julia Ghahramani, Web Columnists — February 19, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Columbia, The Socially Irresponsible Investor

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http://barnardcolumbiadivest.wordpress.com/

In a recent study at Boston College, a group of researchers found that while student expectations for their undergraduate educations tend to be “very instrumental and personal,” higher education institutions themselves tend to expect “highly ideal life-and society-changing consequences” as the result of pursuing an undergraduate degree.

As a Columbia community member, you might scoff at this finding, as the Columbia situation is antithetical to the one depicted above: both recent and historical events have suggested Columbia’s institutional goals to be anything but idealistic. In fact, students at Columbia seem to be far more ethically-minded than the institution itself. I argue that the University’s longstanding orientation towards profit and bureaucracy has come at the cost of more principled and moral institutional aims.

In the past two years, Columbia students have called out the administration for its dissolute practices, demanding increased transparency and social responsibility in the University’s financial practices. Student groups Barnard-Columbia Divest for Climate Justice and Columbia Prison Divest have been petitioning the administration to divest its endowment funds from the fossil fuel and private prison industries, respectively.

The University, rather expectedly, has responded with near silence to students’ requests on the matter. With the exception of divestment from South Africa during the latter part of the era of apartheid, demands for divestment by Columbia have proven futile within the current framework of university policy on responsible investing. This lack of action is due to the absence of any substantial official Columbia policy on social responsibility.

To begin, Columbia’s mission statement ignores the issue of its greater societal impact. The statement recognizes “the importance of its location in New York City” and claims that Columbia “seeks to link its research and teaching to the vast resources of a great metropolis,” creating a “distinguished learning environment” for students and “expect[ing] all areas of the university to advance knowledge and learning to the highest level.” Nothing in this statement suggests a formal obligation to social responsibility. The absence of an actual commitment to benefit society at large is glaringly absent in Columbia’s guiding and central mission statement.

Other Ivies, in contrast, recognize their duty towards the greater good; for example, Brown’s mission statement reads, “the mission of Brown University is to serve the community, the nation, and the world,” and Princeton’s states, “the University aims to develop [the] core values [of]…a sense of responsibility for their own well-being and the well-being of others.” I never thought I’d see the day that Brown would outpace Columbia in anything.

Columbia’s official proxy voting guidelines on socially responsible investing are similarly devoid of a commitment to serve the global community. The Advisory Committee for Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI), a group in which voting privileges are equally proportioned between students, faculty, and alumni, established these guidelines in 2010. On green house gas emissions and fossil fuels, the ACSRI supports proposals calling for reporting on greenhouse gas emissions, quantitative goals for reducing GHG emissions, and reporting on companies’ climate change impact.” But nowhere in Columbia’s proxy voting guidelines does Columbia bother itself with the actual abstention from investments in fossil fuels, despite it simultaneous recognition of the moral irresponsibility of climate change. The hypocrisy!

I should be fair: Columbia does abstain from these irresponsible investments if the company in question has, “been the subject of recent, significant violations, fines, litigation, or controversy related to greenhouse gas emissions.” In other words, if the public catches wind, Columbia will gladly divest, lest its sterling reputation take a hit in the press. As we’ve seen in the case of sexual assault, the administration will gladly engage in ethically dubious behavior outside the spotlight of the public.

In a letter to President Bollinger, Columbia Prison Divest expressed its concern over Columbia’s $8 million investment in the for-profit prison industry. “Wishing to hold their university accountable to its commitment against discrimination,” CPD cited higher rates of incarceration for “people of color and LGBTQ, international, and working-class communities” as reasons for Columbia to immediately divest from the prison industry.

The case with prisons follows the outline of the fossil fuels example. Columbia is not committing to abstention from investment in industries that actively infringe upon social responsibility, instead asking corporations, “to create and present reports outlining their policies and procedures regarding human rights,” and, “to establish board committees on human rights and associated policies.” These guidelines reflect the empty, superficial nature of the University’s commitment (and I use that term in the weakest sense possible) to social responsibility. The U.S. government, in conjunction with private prison corporations, has institutionalized the death penalty, torture, false imprisonment, racial bias, and solitary confinement in its dealings with convicted citizens. Does the fact of these human rights abuses not merit an acknowledgement from the University beyond merely a simple ‘report’ from the very corporations profiting from these abuses?

Some might respond that the endowment does indeed produce socially responsible outcomes, such as the financial aid system and generous research grants. But do the means of producing these goods justify the ends? Is the reward of financial aid worth the perpetuation of the for-profit prison system, or the destruction of the planet?

Columbia students come to this University seeking both intellectual and moral guidance. The University sets an example for proper and moral behavior. As an esteemed institution, it is respected and trusted. What kind of lesson is it teaching its students; that its graduates should exploit and degrade their fellow citizens and their environment, all in pursuit of an ever-illusive margin of profit for the already bloated endowment (which now stands at 8.2 billion)?

I’ll close with a statement by Rashid Parker, a participant in the infamous student protests of ’68, when Columbia students occupied campus buildings in response to Columbia’s financial link to military weapons research in the Defense Research Institute and the reported construction of a supposedly segregated gym in Morningside Park.

[Students] know that their task is to educate you [the University]…they confront you with your own denials of humanity, and your meaningless and hurtful expansions of your own power, as we tried to do in 1968.”

Will we, the students of the next generation, too be (figuratively) beaten to silence by the authority that denies us a voice, as the students in 1968 physically were? Or will we, like student bodies past, “confront” the administration for their obvious “denials of humanity”,openly fighting the broken—and immoral—administrative system of our beloved University?

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for writing this! By the way, I just wanted to point out that investing responsibly does not necessarily entail reduced financial aid. During the recession, Columbia’s endowment lost a lot of value. Despite this, everyone in need received financial aid. If, for whatever reason, Columbia were to lose money through divestment, the university has the responsibility to provide for the students first and alter budgets for other projects (i.e. Manhattanville). In addition, several alumni have decided to not donate to Columbia unless it divests from fossil fuels–they would give more if Columbia does divest.

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