RIO Reclaims College’s Financial Autonomy

Josh Ashkinaze, Columnist

Over the weekend, I participated in a workshop led by the Responsible Investment Organization, exploring endowments and how to sustainably and responsibly invest. There are three main reasons why I think students should join RIO. First, there may be no other time in your life when you can leverage more than $800 million dollars for any social benefit. Secondly, reinvestment is constructive and effective: not only are you criticizing the current method of investing, you’re also able to simultaneously suggest a solution. Finally, student participation is needed now more than ever. Everyone knows investment pools aren’t co-ops, but you are normally able to vote on where your money goes. Yet for all funds managed by our Chief Investment Officer, Jainen Thayer, Oberlin College has relinquished its right to proxy-voting, the basic act of voting on where and how to invest.

We need more students to put pressure on the administration to, at the very least, change fund managers. Currently, neither students nor the administration have a say in where the money in our investment pool goes.

Here’s a simple overview of how the endowment works. The school receives large gifts from alumni, which amounted to $15.7 million in 2015. This money goes into the $814.3 million general investment pool, which is a collection of more than 1,000 funds. The endowment keeps the school running through the returns its funds generate. The majority of the endowment returns go back into the endowment, while other returns are used for the operating budget to run the school. Twenty percent of our 2015 operating budget was derived from endowment investment earnings. On average, schools derive about 10 percent of their operating budget from their endowment investment earnings. We have a lot riding on ours.

As for the investment process, the Board of Trustees elects 24 members, each of whom serve a six-year term, and alumni elect another six. Peers elect three class trustees to serve on the board for three years. Trustees head committees to oversee the school’s functioning. The nine-person investment committee is made up of five trustees, two non-trustee Oberlin alumni who went into the private sector and Biggs Professor of Natural Science Bob Bosch and Frederick B. Artz Professor Leonard Smith. The Investment Committee produces general investment strategies, and also hires a Chief Investment Officer — in our case, Thayer. Thayer hires a fund manager, who does not interact with the College but picks the specific investments into which our relevant endowment funds are pooled.

So the obvious reason why reinvestment is good is that you can have a claim in how $800 million — some of it derived from you as a student — is spent. For example, there are asset management firms where the fund managers are engaged in impact investing. The fund manager not only wants to get a return on investment but also have some positive impact in a community or business sector. RIO recently successfully lobbied the administration to put more of our money in the hands of Zevin Asset Management, an impact investing firm. It’s not even a zero-sum game between impact investing and revenue, because impact investing is on the rise.

Reinvestment is constructive. It’s proposing to transfer an investment from one group of holdings to another. It’s a style of activism that avoids annoying laps of pathologizing — the beauty of reinvestment is that you can both diagnose the social issue at hand and provide the antidote by switching where you invest. Obviously not investing in private prisons doesn’t make them non-existent, but it does make the school less complicit in their existence. As of now, although many students pay a lot of money to attend Oberlin, neither students nor the Board of Trustees — on behalf of students — have a say in how most of the College’s funds are spent.

With proxy-voting, we’d be able to propose changes to the investment pool’s strategy. These proposals might include something like negative screens, a mutual fund “filtration system” that the fund manager uses to makes sure the fund is never invested in, say, private prisons. Or we could propose positive screens, where the fund manager would actively seek to invest in companies working on energy efficiency, for example. Reinvestment is constructive because there’s no lag between pointing out a problem and offering a solution.

Currently, much of our endowment is tied up in a pool that’s strategy is a hands-off, “Jesus, take the wheel” model of investment. Financial expert or not, it’s notoriously difficult to consistently beat the market. According to a 2015 study by S&P Dow Jones, only 5.28 percent of the 682 domestic equity funds in the top quartile as of March 2013 remained in the top quartile two years later. So it’s unlikely that our fund is manager is an investment wizard, anyway. Why, then, are we relinquishing so much financial autonomy?

RIO’s goal is to steer the endowment towards more responsible investments. This is not a one-off trend; impact investing is a growing movement, and it’s not a trivial task. There’s more than $800 million at stake.