The Oberlin Review

College Allocates $5 Million To New Initiative

Oliver Bok

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Two new policies concerning the College’s investments may make Oberlin finances more reflective of the ideals pushed by the faculty and student body.

The College recently announced a new divestment policy through which members of the Oberlin community can request that the College divest from holdings in corporations that “shock the conscience.” In addition to the new divestment policy, the Board of Trustees has set aside $5 million from the endowment to be invested in “socially responsible” investments over the next five years as part of the Impact Investment Platform.

According to the resolution adopted by the Board in June, all divestment requests will be assessed according to three criteria. First, divestments must “support activities that materially con- tribute to conditions that shock the conscience.” The list of actions that may qualify as sufficiently extreme include “genocide, ethnic cleansing, un- justified disregard of profound environmental deg- radation and other wide-scale acts of injustice.”

Secondly, divesting has to be “likely to have significant financial, reputational or other adverse impacts on the target of the divestment that may influence its behavior or the behavior of other similarly situated entities.”

Lastly, “the proposed divestment (or decision not to divest) will be generally understood by and acceptable to the great[er] Oberlin community.”

While any student, employee or alumnum may make a divestment request, any divestment proposal needs to be approved by two-thirds of the Board to come to fruition.

“It’s a strange process,” said Jasper Clarkberg, College sophomore and member of the Responsible Investing Organization, a student group that calls for investing the endowment ethically. “There’s no timeline, it appears to be entirely behind closed doors, there’s no implementation specifics, and then there’s kind of a little notice about if we’re invested in things that are in a larger fund, then they throw their hands up and say, ‘Well, we’re going to pretty much give up on that.’ Our next campaign is a transparency campaign to say, ‘How can we know what to divest from if we don’t know what the problem is?’”

For members of Students for a Free Palestine, the new policy presents an opportunity to encourage divestment from Israel.

“As a Palestine solidarity organization, we are calling for divestment in accordance with the global anti-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement called for by Palestinian civil society in 2005,”SFP said in an email to the Review.“It is unacceptable to remain invested in these corporations any longer, and Oberlin has an opportunity here to set a precedent for other universities across the country.”

Professor of Politics Chris Howell said that, regardless of the outcome of the new policy, it was “as good as [one] could hope for, because it doesn’t close off options.”

Professor Howell is also a member of the Impact Investment Platform, the subcommittee of the Investment Committee charged with making recommendations to the Committee and the Board on how the school should invest $5 million over the next five years in a “socially responsible” manner.

According to Howell, the list of factors that are qualified under “shocking the conscience” include things like environmental degradation.

“If it had just talked about genocide, then you’ve got a pretty small pool,” Howell said. “But environmental degradation as something that shocks the conscience strikes me as opening a barn door to walk through on issues of fossil fuel and carbon divestment. It’s very general, but I think general is better for a divestment policy. I think specific and narrow means it’s much harder to push for divestment.”

Howell went on to say that the institution of the policy is an important step for the College.

“We need a divestment policy. We can’t go without having one at all, which is what the situation was before,” he added.

According to Howell, the IIP was formed in the spring, met twice last semester and has yet to meet for this semester.

“Impact investing essentially means identifying investment vehicles that match particular values, social justice values … for each of five years. Starting this past year, $1 million would be transferred from the full endowment to this impact investment fund, and this committee would get to identify appropriate investment funds and vehicles that respond to these social justice values,” said Howell.

“The committee, with a lot of advice from consultants and trustees, identified three funds that particularly focused on environmental sustainability and local community development, and identified those as funds that this first $1 million dollars would go into,”he said.

According to the resolution on impact investing that was approved by the Board in October 2013, the investments made by the IIP must earn “a competitive rate of return relative to assets held in the endowment.”But, according to Howell, the committee recognized that the kinds of investment vehicles the IIP was recommending might not make as high a return as stocks and other high-return type investments would.

The entire endowment was roughly $714 million as of June 2013, according to the Investment Office. “This platform is [a] super small fund compared to the size of the endowment, so it’s really not as radical as they say it is,” said Clarkberg.

For Howell, the committee is still in its infancy.

“This is clearly an experiment. It was set up to see how successful this kind of socially responsible investing could be,” said Howell.

The IIP has students, faculty, alumni, trustees and staff as members. The subcommittee is co-chaired by trustee Tom Kutzen, OC ’76, and Jainen Thayer, the chief investment officer for the College.

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