University News

Student coalition rallies for budget transparency

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010

Correction appended.

The Open the Books Coalition held a teach-in and a rally this weekend in protest of the University’s confidential investment policy. The coalition, a joint effort between Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Labor Alliance and Brown Students for Justice in Palestine, was created to fight for a transparent endowment that the community would play a role in crafting, said Susan Beaty ’10, who moderated the teach-in.

Open the Books was created after last year’s May Corporation meeting, Beaty said.

“A bunch of groups came together realizing that the work they were doing really intercepted,” she said at Friday’s teach-in.

“We were all working against the same enemies and injustices. We were really concerned with the secrecy, the lack of transparency and the decisions that were made about where our money was spent,” she said. “We want an endowment with a list of all the companies it’s invested in available to the public.”

The coalition organized its first teach-in last semester and has “continued to work together for an open endowment on this campus,” Beaty said.

Students for a Democratic Society was the first organization to speak at the teach-in.

“We’re talking about an endowment that students have control over … an endowment where socially responsible recommendations are enforced,” SDS member Haley Kossek ’13 said at the teach-in.

“You can look online, you can look in Morning Mail, you can look in the (Undergraduate Council of Students) minutes, on Google, on J-Stor, you can go down to the investment office on Ship Street if you’re so inclined and ask for a copy of all the companies that Brown is invested in, YouTube it,” Kossek said. “But you won’t find it because it’s not there.”

She also said most of the University’s endowment is handled and invested by external money managers who have non-disclosure policies.

Other peer institutions such as Wesleyan University, Columbia and Cornell have developed more transparent investment policies. At Wesleyan, students can access a list of their university’s investments on password-protected Web sites, she said. Columbia and Cornell students can access lists at their respective investment offices.

The University’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policy, or ACCRIP, is responsible for making recommendations about where the University should invest.

This body is inefficient in its efforts because only two of its 11 members are undergraduate students and the committee has little enforcement power, SDS member Julie Pittman ’12 said at the teach-in.

“ACCRIP can only make recommendations about investment policy,” she said. “They cannot actually enforce anything.”

“We want to reform ACCRIP so it has actual enforcement power over its decisions,” she added.

SDS called for open ACCRIP meetings that followed a “community-set agenda” in which all students have voting power, Kossek said.

“We pay tuition here. We have a right to have a say in these issues,” she said.

“The open curriculum says we are empowered enough to make our own academic decisions and the same should be said about our endowment,” she added.

Members from the Student Labor Alliance spoke at the teach-in against investing in companies with unjust labor policies.

“We are focusing on the way in which money that’s associated with us, as students at this University, is being used towards companies that aren’t using fair labor practices,” said SLA member Olivia Singer ’12.

“If we don’t know who we are investing in, how can we know if they are implicated in bad labor practices?” she asked.

SLA members said they recently learned that Brown invests in HEI Hotels and Resorts, a hotel management company that has been accused of worker harassment and unfair labor policies.

“There is a good chance we are invested in lots of other labor companies that have the same horrible labor practices,” said SLA member Jesse Strecker ’10.

The third group involved in the coalition, Brown Students for Justice in Palestine, called for “Brown to divest from companies that profit from the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories,” Ruhan Nagra ’10 said.

Nagra referred to the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement that was launched by a coalition of Palestinian NGOs in 2005 to stop funding of “Israel’s human rights violations.”

“We feel that we can most effectively respond to the call for (divestment) by ending our complicity as Brown students in violations of human rights and international law in the occupied territories,” she said. “Our campaign here at Brown is part of a global struggle for injustice in Palestine.”

The organization pointed to several large companies, including General Electric and Caterpillar, as being involved in Israel’s efforts against Palestine and urged Brown to divest from them. Because of the University’s confidential investment policy, the group does not know if the University invests in these companies.

The coalition held a rally in front of University Hall where the Corporation was holding its Saturday meeting. Although the rally was planned for 11 a.m., some members of the coalition were outside the building at 7 a.m. to confront Corporation members as they entered the meeting.

“We had some really good conversations and some not good conversations,” said Will Lambek ’10, a member of the coalition.

In his address to the protestors, Lambek referenced a conversation with a Corporation member. The member said, “When you’re on a plane, you let the pilot fly and you sit in the back,” according to Lambek.

“We have to reject the notion that other people know better than we do what sort of values this University has and how those should be represented by our endowment and investment,” Lambek said to the protesters.

“The school belongs to those who live here, those who work here, those who study here — that means students, faculty and staff,” he said.

“Pretty much everybody except the people up there,” he added, referring to the Corporation. 

The protesters spent about half an hour circling University Hall while chanting calls for an open investment policy, before directly confronting the Corporation members as they exited the building.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Wesleyan, Cornell, and Columbia universities all provide students and faculty access to their respective investment portfolios through password-protected Web sites. In fact, only Wesleyan uses this approach. Cornell and Columbia make their investments available at their individual investment offices.