RIO Pushes Trustees for Transparency

To the Editors:

On Oct. 2 of this year, the Board of Trustees announced that it is accepting proposals for divestment of the endowment and outlined general criteria for evaluation. This news comes in addition to the announcement last year of the Impact Investing Platform, which will invest $5 million of the College’s endowment over the next five years in companies with a high social impact. Both actions show that the College is beginning to recognize the moral implications of its investments. This is especially impressive in a financial culture that so often directs its sole focus towards profit, and we commend the Board for its progress.

That being said, we would like to push the Board of Trustees to go a bit further before it calls the effort a “leading-edge commitment to responsible investing.” Though the new policies have great merit, they were created after years of pressure from student groups and after the examples set by peer institutions. With both the divestment and impact investing policies, the Board of Trustees has the final authority on all decisions. This means it is still the responsibility of students and staff of the College to hold the administration accountable for any initiatives it takes on.

The wording of the new divestment policy remains vague. Is the policy weak, or are the details still being worked out? There is no indication of what information the Board will release to the public regarding divestment proposals, so that the Board will not have to provide a concrete reason for rejecting one. If accepted, there is no timeline for implementing proposals, so they could sit in limbo forever. Even if implemented, the specific logistics are left to the discretion of the Board and the Investment Office, so that unethical investments that happen to be bundled with other investments in “investment vehicles” might be untouched.

There is a more fundamental problem with the new divestment policy: As it stands, students cannot know the contents of Oberlin’s $700 million endowment. If the administration is not transparent about how our endowment is invested, how can we know from what we need to divest? Is this new policy an admission that there are unethical investments hidden within our endowment? And how do we hold the College accountable when it does pledge to divest?

Increased endowment transparency is the next step toward making Oberlin a leader in responsible investing. This is why the Responsible Investing Organization is beginning a transparency campaign this fall. Transparency would allow the greater Oberlin community to have a more active role in understanding and participating in the moral implications of our investments, and it would provide assurance that our endowment actually lines up with Oberlin’s stated values. The Responsible Investing Organization urges the administration to reach out and work with us to get a student perspective on the developing responsible investing effort and the specifics of our transparency campaign demands.

–Responsible Investing Organization