Swarthmore students, faculty, and staff love to proclaim the benefits of transparency. The proxy voting guidelines endorsed on the Investment Office’s website discusses the “growing consensus on the importance of transparency,” and earlier this academic year Student Council organized a forum on transparency.
However, when it comes to transparency regarding financial decisions, the distribution of funds and details of investments are hidden away. It isn’t surprising that the College received a B- on endowment transparency from the Endowment Institute.
The explanation for this secrecy is surprisingly consistent between SBC and the College. At a discussion on the budget last year, President Al Bloom explained that the budget is not released because “those numbers would become political weapons … rather than a basis for deeper understanding.” Still, he assured the student audience, “[the College is] disposed to sharing the numbers when people understand them.”
Informal discussions with members of the Student Budget Committee have won similar explanations: revealing numbers without proper context could cause problems.
We believe, however, this secrecy goes against the basic principles of the College.
Our mission declares that Swarthmore students “are expected to prepare themselves for full, balanced lives as individuals and as responsible citizens.” We are expected to develop “a deep sense of ethical and social concern.” This is reflected in many policies, in which the College is enormously trusting of the student body.
Why should the endowment and the student activities budget be different?
The solution to people misunderstanding financial numbers is not to hide them away. Instead, it is to make enough information available to students (and prospective students, faculty, parents, alumni, and staff) that the budget can be put into context. The College should inform, not assume that members of the community are waiting for a chance to attack spending decisions.
For example, beyond releasing the budget, the College could do more to explain its investments. Swarthmore has an endowment of $1.4 billion, an enormous sum of money. At a bare minimum, for example, the College could release the names of the seventy-five firms which manage the endowment without revealing those firm’s investment strategy (a concern expressed at the budget discussion this past fall).
Some efforts by the College and SBC have been admirable. In 1997, the Committee on Investor Responsibility was established to “make recommendations on voting shareholder resolutions,” and the College makes some of its votes publicly available. Sadly, the website (found here) has not been maintained–the list of committee members is two years old, there is only a single year of voting results available (2006), and the Committee’s voting guidelines document is from 2005.
This isn’t enough.
Moreover, every single public university in the nation is required by law to publish their budgets. If their faculty and students can manage to survive these potentially divisive numbers, we believe Swarthmore’s notoriously intellectual student body could manage to do the same.
We urge the Student Budget Committee and the College to make their budgets publicly available. Yes: Transparency is difficult, it can cause problems. But if the administration and SBC truly want the Swarthmore community to be involved invested and involved, they should not try to protect us from the truth.