Join us!
Posted in News

Students Press on Investments, Administration Unmoved

By
November 15, 2012

Students and members of Swarthmore Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine (SPJP) marched a list of 40 companies up to the office of Vice President for Finance and Treasurer Suzanne Welsh on Tuesday, asking that Swarthmore disclose any direct holdings in these companies in the last quarter. Welsh told the students that it was not the College’s policy to disclose the requested information but that the list would be considered.

SPJP member Danny Hirschel-Burns ’14 had expected a more cooperative response.

“What was really interesting in what she said is that it’s not the College’s policy to tell students what they’re invested in, which is in direct contradiction with everything I’ve heard from Mountain Justice members who have gone through this process before,” he said.

At 12:40 P.M., five students  gathered at Parrish Hall to march up to Welsh’s office on the second floor, where they introduced themselves and delivered their list to Welsh.

That list includes Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard—companies which SPJP is interested in divesting from, according to Hirschel-Burns, because of their participation in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. However, it also includes other companies such as Lockheed Martin, Philip Morris, and Chevron.

“We have investment advisory agreements with the [investment firms that manage portfolios for the endowment],” Welsh said via email. “Those agreements usually include a confidentiality clause. For competitive reasons firms do not want to make public the composition of their portfolios.”

Welsh raised the same concern last December in an op-ed about Swarthmore Mountain Justice’s  divestment campaign against fossil fuel companies.

“[I was told] that the College would tell us about any companies that they had domestic direct holdings in in the last quarter . . . I thought it was public information. I guess I was wrong. Or, at least, she told me I was wrong,” said Hirschel-Burns.

Welsh told the students that the College’s holdings change from day to day and that information on holdings during a single quarter may be of little relevance. When she asked what criteria SPJP had used in creating the list, a member said that each of the listed companies was “bad, in some way or another.”

“Simply as Swarthmore students, we’re interested in the College’s investment policies, because the College has absolutely no screens on its investments, which is very, very unusual for a college, especially if you’re one that talks about its Quaker roots and its commitment to social justice,” Hirschel-Burns said. “So to us that’s pretty shocking—that, as we understand it, we could be heavily invested in arms manufacturers, tobacco companies, Wal-Mart.”

“If we do find out that we are invested in quite a few of these companies, I would hope that Swarthmore’s moral sensibilities required to actually put into action an ethical screen,” Hirschel-Burns said.

Shortly before the SPJP members left her office, Welsh asked for a summary of why they had chosen to target each of the companies on the list. The group agreed to provide her with such a summary, but Hirschel-Burns expects the immediate outcome of the list’s presentation to be no more than modest.

“This was, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty minor action. We weren’t expecting that much. We were expecting that she’d at least get back to us,” he said. “We’ll see if that happens.”

32 Responses to Students Press on Investments, Administration Unmoved

  1. Ignorance is not Bliss Reply

    November 15, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Considering 53% of the student body is on financial aid, I’m pretty sure these students should consider the fact they are shooting themselves in the foot by questioning the endowment committee. Their performance and actions will support Swarthmore as one of the most competitive and diverse undergraduate programs in the country. Failure to understand this is ignorant.

    As an alumni, I am proud of the school for doing superbly in the market in 2011. I hope they have continued this trend into another tough year in the markets.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 18 Thumb down 16

    • Trade off Reply

      November 15, 2012 at 4:13 pm

      Is less financial aid the appropriate trade off of divesting that may do little to alter human rights situations halfway round the world?

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 1 Thumb down 12

      • Ignorance is not Bliss Reply

        November 15, 2012 at 10:35 pm

        You can “do little to alter human rights situations” by asking the endowment committee to divest in Caterpillar, but you can do AMAZING things around the world with the opportunities a degree from Swarthmore can present.

        Think big.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 10 Thumb down 10

  2. Pat Walsh '14 Reply

    November 16, 2012 at 12:08 am

    Hi,

    I am a current junior at Swarthmore and am on financial aid. I have not professionally studied financial markets or had years of investment experience. I am not an expert.

    I am frankly tired of hearing again and again that divestment will decrease the amount of financial aid available for students. Firstly, I don’t know that divestment from a small number of companies will cause our endowment returns to not perform as well. To my knowledge, Swarthmore’s Investment Committee of the Board of Managers has not researched what would actually happen if we were to divest. We haven’t asked our fund managers what a portfolio could look like without X, Y, and Z, and what kinds of returns they would project.

    Secondly, EVEN if our endowment returns don’t perform as well as they used to, that does not mean that Swarthmore has to necessarily cut back its financial aid packages. Swarthmore has made an outstanding commitment to financial aid. It is entirely within the power of the College to use returns from the endowment and to work with our operating budget to guarantee that students can attend Swarthmore.

    You say that if we divest and IF the endowment returns don’t perform as well, the students should bear the burden of this consequence. Why? Because students suggested the idea of divestment in the first place? It is ultimately the decision of the Board of Managers to divest. It is the responsibility of the Board of Managers, the Investment Committee, and the fund managers we hire to have a healthy, sustainable endowment – this is not the responsibility of current or future students. I sincerely hope that if Swarthmore ever divests from any companies, that the decision is wholeheartedly supported and that we recognize that students do not have to be punished for any consequences that arise from a decision made by the Board of Managers.

    What is also disturbing about the line of reasoning (from divestment to loss of financial aid) is that it can be used to silence and halt a conversation. Once the loss of financial aid is brought up, it places students who are simply asking about the endowment in a position of absurd responsibility, and it threatens them and fellow students.

    I hope that we can actually talk about divestment – that we can discuss as a community and as a College what are its consequences, and what political and environmental effects our endowment has and can have. I hope that we can thoroughly research and examine what divestment might do, asking our fund managers what screening out a few companies looks like. I hope that we can listen to the many voices inside this community and out.

    -Pat

    Recommended by readers. Vote Up or Down: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 5

    • ... Reply

      November 16, 2012 at 9:24 am

      YES! thank you for this. tying divestment directly to a loss of financial aid is sloppy logic at best and puts a stranglehold on productive conversation.

      Recommended by readers. Vote Up or Down: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

      • Ignorance is not Bliss Reply

        November 17, 2012 at 12:09 pm

        Tying divestment directly to political and environmental gains is sloppy logic at best and puts a stranglehold on productive **ACTION**.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 4 Thumb down 9

        • ... Reply

          November 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm

          what other actions would you suggest we take? change a couple of light bulbs in the dining hall? i call that feel good bullshit.

          Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

    • Ignorance is not Bliss Reply

      November 16, 2012 at 9:34 am

      Pat, I would urge you to read Welsh’s response to Mountain Justice, and would like to highlight a few points:

      1) It is against confidentiality agreements for the College to disclose the holdings of investment managers. Period.

      2) You have more power to shift the decisions of a company as a shareholder relative to someone on the sideline. In addition to Welsh’s response, see Swarthmore’s Committee on Responsible Investing for more.

      3) The contribution of the endowment to the operating budget in 2010-2011 was ~40%. The endowment must keep up with growing cost inflation, or someone must pay. It could be financial aid recipients, it might be families that can afford Swarthmore (now), or it could be in the form of slowing faculty and administration salaries.

      If every activist group on campus was able to dictate the investment policy of Swarthmore’s endowment, what would we be left to even invest in? Green energy (good luck), MJNA (yeah right) or Whole Foods (might be reasonable). Our country is occupying Afghanistan right now, so maybe we should think about divesting our U.S. Treasury Bonds, huh?

      Recommended by readers. Vote Up or Down: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 8

      • Common Sense Reply

        November 16, 2012 at 7:45 pm

        This is the most amount of common sense I have seen so far on this page.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 5 Thumb down 5

      • Pat Walsh '14 Reply

        November 17, 2012 at 12:25 am

        Ignorance is not Bliss,

        I have read Suzanne Welsh’s response, as I’m a member of Mountain Justice [disclaimer - I do not speak for the group as a whole].

        1) I realize this. This fact does not prohibit us from discussing what our endowment means politically and raising concerns about where we should invest. It also doesn’t prohibit the Board of Managers, or a committee of students, faculty, and administrators, from discussing Swarthmore’s investments in more detail (so long as they don’t promote this information publicly). In fact, the Committee on Investor Responsibility (CIR) is just such a committee.

        2) I like shareholder resolutions, and am grateful that the CIR exists at Swarthmore. However, in some cases shareholder resolutions aren’t enough. For one, shareholder resolutions are non-binding, so although they put pressure on a company to change its practices, the company does not have to follow a resolution, even one voted on by a majority of its shareholders. Also, by divesting, Swarthmore isn’t relegating itself to “the sidelines” – it is making a conscious decision not to financially support a company, and it can promote this political position to delegitimize this company.

        In the case when students or investors may oppose an entire industry or country for political reasons (examples: fossil fuel industry, tobacco industry, South Africa [during apartheid], Israel), shareholder resolutions do not work. Shareholder resolutions can make suggestions to company policies, but they cannot ask the company to stop its central practices. We cannot submit a resolution asking ExxonMobil to stop drilling for oil. Even if we did, it would have no effect. Divestment does have power in these cases.

        [I am not saying I oppose shareholder resolutions - on the contrary, divestment and shareholder resolutions are both useful actions in regards to socially responsible investing.]

        3) Swarthmore’s endowment in 2011 was 1.5 billion dollars. During the 2010-2011 fiscal year, Swarthmore made a 24.6 percent return on its investments – much more than its goal of a 9.3 percent return, which is already well above the difference in inflation. What I’m saying with these numbers is that Swarthmore has a huge endowment and has been doing extremely well in its returns. Further, IF Swarthmore were to divest, as I have already said and as Suzanne Welsh herself says, “The Board of Managers delegates to the Investment Committee of the Board the investment responsibility for the endowment.”

        The Investment Committee is responsible for the endowment, not students. They hire investment firms that will invest in the strategy that the Board decides upon. Swarthmore has lots of money, and as a client of these investment firms, we can ask for the best product they can provide. There are numerous schools that screen for certain companies – it is possible to do this.

        Your last point frustrates me. I don’t think that your exaggeration presents the views of any students on campus.
        I am not an investment manager, nor do I pretend to be one. However, Swarthmore is an institution which values (or at least purports to value) open dialogue, community, and social responsibility. I believe that we should examine and discuss our endowment in order to live up to the value of social responsibility. If Swarthmore truly values community and open dialogue, they should allow students to ask these kinds of questions, and have a structural process for students to discuss the endowment with the administration and the Board.

        -Pat

        [Swarthmore's Financial Report 2010-2011:
        http://www.swarthmore.edu/Documents/administration/finance_investment_office/FinancialReport_10-11.pdf ]

        Recommended by readers. Vote Up or Down: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 3

  3. Huzilla Reply

    November 16, 2012 at 3:07 am

    Question to SPJP:

    I think I read in your Phoenix article that Caterpillar was included because it’s bulldozers were being used to demolish homes in Gaza (or something along those lines).

    My question is, given that companies often don’t screen for the moral uses of their products, how do you decide whether it shouldn’t be a company we invest in? I mean, using this logic, couldn’t I argue that Swarthmore shouldn’t invest in Gatorade, if it’s the thirst quencher for Al-Qaeda? What if Saddam Hussein wore Jockey underwear. What if Crest is the official toothpaste of *gasp* Mitt Romney?

    Recommended by readers. Vote Up or Down: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 7

  4. Huzilla Reply

    November 16, 2012 at 3:09 am

    i mean COME ON “bad, in some way or another”?

    That’s the criteria we’re using?

    Sorry SPJP, I expect a little more than that.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 8 Thumb down 7

    • agreed Reply

      November 19, 2012 at 10:44 am

      I could say something “bad” about literally every company on earth. This is getting a little ridiculous.

      Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

      • Danny Hirschel-Burns Reply

        November 20, 2012 at 12:32 am

        We define bad as: Weapons manufacturers, tobacco companies, companies that have severely violated human rights or those of their employees, companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, fossil fuel companies, and private prison companies.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

        • Danny Hirschel-Burns Reply

          November 20, 2012 at 12:35 am

          Also, to be clear, SPJP is not necessarily calling for divestment from these 40 companies. We would just like to know, as students of the college, whether Swarthmore is invested in them.

          Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

        • Huzilla Reply

          November 26, 2012 at 4:52 pm

          So which criteria does Caterpillar fall under?

          Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. Peter Reply

    November 16, 2012 at 5:21 am

    I dislike how the divestment group happily labels any company they dislike as “evil, bad in some way.” I feel like there are plenty of Swatties (well, one at the very least) who like companies that support Israel, or provide weapons to our military, or provide useful energy resources. And what exactly has Walmart done to incur our wrath?

    Swatties are certainly welcome to form groups and rally for their cause (Ban Hummus! Support Unions!). However, the college investment portfolio is not an appropriate platform for their political/personal crusades.

    None of these companies has committed human-right atrocities that are unquestionably evil (such as apartheid). As such, the investment group should continue its apolitical role of managing the college’s portfolio, instead of making moral judgements that do not necessarily reflect the views of a percentage of the student body.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 9 Thumb down 12

  6. Hannah '12 Reply

    November 16, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    @ Ignorance is Bliss

    It is obnoxious and willfully ignorant of you to paint Swarthmore’s investment and budget options as painfully narrow as you did. As Pat rightly pointed out, you are aggressively silencing the conversation, instead of engaging in a way that opens up possibilities. The incorporation of Environmental and Social Governance investment principles is standard practice for many investors, and have been successful at generating good returns. In fact, these portfolios have performed better in the long term than the highly risky and volatile portfolios that many endowments are invested in currently. It is not an outrageous idea for Swarthmore to explore these viable portfolio options, despite your belittling comments to the contrary.

    You are also deliberately using scare tactics – threatening financial aid and faculty salaries – instead of being willing to explore the many different ways we could cut costs in the operating budget, and that is IF we suffer losses on our portfolio. Finally, as you will undoubtedly have seen in one of Swarthmore Mountain Justice’s many responses to the administration’s continued admonitions that shareholder resolutions are the answer, shareholder resolutions are an effective tactic when the change you are looking for does not interfere with the daily business practices of a given company. If one were to bring a shareholder resolution to ExxonMobil proposing that they stop drilling for oil, the resolution wouldn’t even make it to the floor. If we want to see any sort of immediate or significant action against human rights and environmental abuses, asking the guilty companies to change their ways is not going to cut it.

    Recommended by readers. Vote Up or Down: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 8

    • Ignorance is not Bliss Reply

      November 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm

      Unfortunately, the investment options are narrow in today’s environment. With Europe in recession, China at a socioeconomic crossroad, and the United States facing anemic growth, investment opportunities are few and far between. If I thought the college could afford to take all these politically conscious groups into consideration, I would throw my weight behind those students. This is not the case. Frankly, it is magical that the endowment returned 24% in 2011. If Swarthmore was ranked among Bloomberg’s 100 top-performing hedge funds of 2011, the college would be #3 on the list (Source: Bloomberg Markets, Feb 2012). I wish more students saw this as a source of pride. This was truly an incredible feat.

      With regards to the budget, let me set up a hypothetical situation. Let’s say the investment committee was aggressive in implementing student requests. This resulted in needs for cost cutting. What inefficiencies could be addressed, while maintaining the quality of learning, financial aid, general school environment, and employee benefits? I bet you’ll find my “scare tactics” are merely realistic concerns.

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 14 Thumb down 10

      • Common Sense Reply

        November 17, 2012 at 3:13 pm

        This college needs more people like you.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 9 Thumb down 6

      • ummm Reply

        November 17, 2012 at 5:04 pm

        we should take making extreme profits from companies like exxon mobil, philip morris or lockheed martin as a point of pride?

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 5 Thumb down 6

  7. Reality Reply

    November 16, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    The endowment isn’t just some pot of money the trustees stir because they think it’s fun. The purpose is to uphold the institution and, in no small part, our generous financial aid packages. SPJP, MJ, and whatever group is going to march on Susan Welsh’s office next can’t seriously continue all this anti-endowment talk and then express frustration when other students raise legitimate questions regarding financial aid.

    A Swarthmore education is expensive, and a lot of careful considerations go into paying for this place. Instead of sounding like conscientious citizens you wind up seeming really entitled.

    Pat is right to say, “It is the responsibility of the Board of Managers, the Investment Committee, and the fund managers we hire to have a healthy, sustainable endowment – this is not the responsibility of current or future students.” Let’s leave the Board to manage the investments then.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 10 Thumb down 10

    • Pat Walsh '14 Reply

      November 17, 2012 at 10:42 am

      Reality,

      I think my frustration stems from the fact that often, people aren’t asking thoughtful questions about the issue of financial aid. Instead, people bring up the issue as if the loss of financial aid has been PROVEN to be a consequence of divestment. Often, they aren’t asking if financial aid will be affected, they are claiming that it definitely will be.

      I do think financial aid is a great concern, and as a community, we should research what divestment would actually do to the endowment and its returns, and see what might be necessary to guarantee that Swarthmore still provides generous financial aid packages and just salaries to faculty.

      Students still have a right to question our investment practices. Although we might like to pretend that our endowment is in a political vacuum, it isn’t. Our investments have real, political consequences. It is a shame that our Board of Managers does not acknowledge the political effect of investments, and instead, students must be the ones that push this institution toward social responsibility.

      I will gladly keep asking questions and keep pushing Swarthmore to be a truly just institution.

      -Pat

      Recommended by readers. Vote Up or Down: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  8. fairness Reply

    November 17, 2012 at 11:44 am

    How about divesting in any company that sells to Arab countries that condones gays being stoned to death? Or Arab countries that allow women to be killed, after they have been raped for the family’s “honor? Or allows girls to be killed who want an education?

    The Israeli Arabs, including in the West Bank, have the highest standard of living of any middle-class Arabs. They live in beautiful houses. Go there. I have. Then see how the Arabs treat slave labor in the Gulf States, and then divest in all oil company holdings, and any other companies that touch these repressive Arab countires.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 2 Thumb down 8

    • Uh.. Reply

      November 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm

      Can we not paint all predominantly Arab nations as “repressive countries?” I’m not defending the things you listed, but these kinds of blanket statements are racist and reductive. And the “fact” that some Israeli Arabs have a comparatively high standard of living has nothing to do with the human rights abuses being carried out in Palestine.

      Recommended by readers. Vote Up or Down: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

    • well Reply

      November 17, 2012 at 5:06 pm

      if i’m not mistaken, there’s a group of students looking to divest from old companies. something about mountains?

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. fairness Reply

    November 17, 2012 at 11:50 am

  10. fairness Reply

    November 17, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Where is your moderation policy? Is it politically motivated, or are you looking for personal attacks?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  11. parent Reply

    November 17, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    There is not one Arab country where homosexuality is legal and not punishable by prison or death. Check out the igla website above. I think that Swarthmore should divest itself from all of these countries based upon this alone. How much more of a human rights violation can there be? Unless Swarthmore does not support gay rights anymore? Divesting from these countries would make a wonderful statement!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

    • you know what this is? Reply

      November 17, 2012 at 4:54 pm

      PINKWASHING.

      Recommended by readers. Vote Up or Down: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  12. fairness Reply

    November 17, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    No this just shows that the “progressives” at Swarthmore are so blinded by their hatred for Israel that they no longer care about gay rights and the rights of women. We all know that the Muslim countries allow few rights for women, have absolutely NO gay rights, and use slave labor. This is well-documented. But these are “old” causes, ones that your parents cared about; now that there is gay marriage and lots of women graduating college, these are no longer important. It is far “sexier” to target a country that is Jewish. But this how it is now at Swarthmore. I only regret my association with Swarthmore, and hope that the slave trade in Africa and the Arab countries; gay rights; and women’s rights will one day catch the fancy of the “progressives” at Swarthmore. Until then there will be these ridiculous calls for selective divestment, disregarding human rights in so many other parts of the world. You all are only young once, and hopefully will mature as you travel and study more. I will also be selective, and no longer contribute to Swarthmore.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 4 Thumb down 12

  13. Joan Reply

    November 18, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    While I don’t much like the mannner in which they make their points, a few made by ‘fairness’ are somewhat valid. The world is not a nice place – and there are lots of corporations who commit human rights violations or support countries who do.*

    The question then becomes, where do we draw the line? “Bad, in some way or another” isn’t really going to cut it. When it comes to changing the divestment, I’m curious where SPJP and MJ think we should cut. If it comes down to a choice between focusing on blatant human rights violations that occur in the present, or the long-term environmental damages in the future, which gets priority? There does have to be some way of measuring – a cost-benefit analysis. If we cut every company that was objectionable to a Swarthmore student in some way, where would we be left? Should we refuse companies that do work in China, where there is no freedom of speech or rights for many? Could we invest in meat companies (cows produce methane!)? What about large-scale farms (they are choking smaller ones)? Could we invest in the market at all? Is investing actually supporting the capitalist system and is therefore immoral in and of itself!?!

    Okay, the last question was a joke, but the others could be made seriously. What is a legitimate cause and what is going to far?

    There is a balancing act here. The points made about the college budget are sound. If we do run out of money, something has to go. So divesting should be done with care and slowly. Anyway, SPJP & MJ, where do you draw the line? And who gets priority?

    *http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/apple-admits-it-has-a-human-rights-problem-6898617.html

    Recommended by readers. Vote Up or Down: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>