There is a burgeoning movement on campus this year to stimulate the discussion of whether Williams’ economics are in line with its morality. On October 2, Jonah Zern from Students Allied to Reform Corporations (STARC) spoke to a packed room in Griffin 1. He discussed the essential role students need to play in shaping their school’s financial decisions.
Zern’s message seemed to resonate with the crowd, demonstrating a latent desire in the Williams community to pursue activism towards social progress. This is timely to the Williams community since the College’s endowment broke the billion-dollar barrier this last summer and is currently hovering right around that magical mark.
Students at Williams, and around the entire nation, are beginning to take a concerted interest in the social consequences of their schools’ investments. They ask: Is the benefit we reap from our school’s endowment sufficient motivation to overlook the social harm created by some of the corporations in our investment portfolio? Can we truly separate our morals from our money? The motivation behind these questions is not to come to simplistic, self-congratulating moral answers, but to get this admittedly complex issue talked about in the public sphere.
Williams, like almost all institutions of higher learning, has the overarching financial goal of maximizing its endowment. Theoretically this serves to secure and enhance the school’s resources with the added benefit of being able to attract high quality faculty, students and staff. Even if this theory held across the board, should the specific dollar amount of the endowment be the sole factor in evaluating the success of our school’s investment portfolio? Or, do we also need to take into account the fact that corporations in our portfolio might be polluting our local waterways, creating harmful environments for workers and providing dangerous products for children?
Although experiencing a newly acquired life this year, these types of questions are not new to Williams. The Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR), made up of faculty, staff, students and alumni, was established by President Chandler in 1978 to allow the Williams community to take a proactive role in proxy voting and investment decisions by the college.
During the late ’70s and ’80s, the ACSR along with faculty and students held heated discussions about the complicity that corporations, specifically those in the Williams investment portfolio, had in supporting the regime of apartheid in South Africa. Both President Chandler and his successor, President Oakley, maintained that Williams is in some measure accountable for the behavior of the companies in which it invests, including companies that do business in South Africa.
More recently the ACSR, the College Council and many members of the faculty agreed upon an initiative advising the college to divest its shares away from Phillip Morris. The Trustees appreciated the input but elected to take no action on the initiative.
Currently, the Purple Druids, a student group active in promoting environmental justice, have taken a leadership role in addressing these issues. Already, members of the group have met with the Trustees, talked to faculty members and worked with the Treasurer in getting a copy of the once confidential portfolio made public.
The faculty and administration have not only been very receptive to these ideas but in some cases have even shown an enthusiasm in pursuing them. Many members of the Druids plan to attend the founding conference of STARC at Yale University from November 5-7.
In addition, the Druids, along with others, are urging the college to hire a firm to do an audit of the Williams portfolio factoring in social responsibility. Now in the planning phases are a Gaudino Forum and a public debate discussing Williams and ethical investing practices. At the heart of this issue is whether our dollars constitute votes of tacit approval for corporate actions. If they do, we must necessarily decide what types of actions we intend to support.