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Paxson to respond to sustainable investment recommendations

ACCRIP proposes climate change task force, increased sustainable investment marketing

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2017
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President Christina Paxson P’19 said that she will soon release a response to the December 2016 recommendations of the University’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies, which advised the president to create a climate change task force and increase marketing of the Brown University Sustainable Investment Fund. The BUSIF, launched last year, offers a “sustainability-focused” donating option for alums and graduating students that will invest in companies that have “high standards of environmental, social and governance practices,” according to a January 2016 University press release.

ACCRIP examines ethical and moral responsibility in the investment policies of the University. The recommendations responded to a presentation made to ACCRIP in 2014 by Fossil Free Brown, a student-run campaign pushing for divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, said Chair of ACCRIP and Associate Professor of History Vazira Zamindar.

The president’s office is not obligated to implement ACCRIP recommendations. In 2013, ACCRIP recommended to Paxson that the University divest from 15 coal companies, but the University declined.

Though eventual divestment remains an option, these new recommendations tackle divestment less directly than the 2013 recommendations. Instead, they present an opportunity for Paxson to publicize existing programs and assemble teams to conduct in-depth sustainable investment research. Though the University already staffs an Environmental Change Task Force, ACCRIP recommended the University create a separate Climate Investment Task Force to bring together “specialized knowledge” across students, alums and faculty and staff members on investment recommendations regarding climate change, Zamindar said.

Paxson met with ACCRIP members Zamindar and Katie Silberman ’94, assistant director of community relations, Jan. 31 to provide initial feedback on their recommendations, Zamindar wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald. ACCRIP’s feedback to Paxson’s proposal suggested that she include climate change and be more specific about the issue of environmental responsibility, Zamindar wrote. 

“If it’s a weak committee that looks at social responsibility more broadly” then it would be “overlapping or replicating” the kind of work that ACCRIP is already tasked with, except that its members would be appointed by the president instead of representing the University, she added.

“If it doesn’t include (climate change) components, then as an advisory committee, we will be concerned,” Zamindar said.

In addition, Paxson’s latest feedback did not mention divestment as a possibility, she added.

Paxson has not yet formally responded to ACCRIP’s recommendations or the feedback that ACCRIP provided on Paxson’s preliminary proposal, Zamindar said. But the president was “kept informed as this proposal was developed, and I have worked with the committee to develop a response to their recommendations,” Paxson wrote in an email to The Herald.

ACCRIP’s December 2016 recommendations mark the culmination of several months of deliberation. “It has taken (ACCRIP) a while to respond, partly because the committee membership changes,” Zamindar said. When Zamindar took over in March 2016, the committee had undergone member changes, she said.

Following the 2014 presentation, ACCRIP met with students, faculty members and staff members to solicit feedback from the wider Brown community. “There were strong ethical arguments in favor of divestment,” Zamindar said.

But ACCRIP recognizes the practical challenges to divestment and questions its efficacy in addressing climate change, Silberman said.

Since over 95 percent of the endowment is managed by those outside the investment office, the office often cannot realistically track the University’s endowment, which is over $3 billion, let alone request money managers to divest, said Sophie Purdom ’16, an alum involved in the creation of the BUSIF last year.

Divestment makes a symbolic statement but may not present a practical solution, as Brown does not own a major stake in the large fossil fuel companies, Silberman said. Divestment “ is definitely still on the table, we just don’t think it should be the only tool in the toolbox,” Silberman said.

ACCRIP envisions that the Climate Change Task Force would evaluate the comparative merits of the many economic tools available to the University to address climate change, ranging from divestment to sustainable investment and beyond, Zamindar said.

In the meantime, ACCRIP is pushing the BUSIF fund to center stage. Donations to the BUSIF are managed by Parnassus Endeavor Fund, a fossil-fuel free mutual fund that invests in “companies that are having a positive impact” in terms of environmental responsibility, internal governance and relationships with employees, social scores and strong governance, according to the Parnassus website.

To date, the fund has received $6,600 in donations, said Jane Dietze, managing director of the Investment Office.

“The Advancement Group is responsible for communicating and marketing the fund,” Dietze said. “And so that process hasn’t been done as aggressively as we would like … so I agree with ACCRIP that more marketing” is needed, Dietze said. “Someone within (the Advancement Office ) needs to take ownership of communicating the information,” she said.

Members of the Office of Advancement were not available for comment, according to an email to The Herald from Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt.

“I don’t think we’ve done a particularly good job of directing people who might talk to advancement officers” to the BUSIF, Purdom said. “There’s a bit of a disconnect there between people who are asking for (a sustainable giving option)” with information about the BUSIF, she added. “My first suggestion would be to first train advancement officers with the language and the frequently asked questions and the details behind this fund so that they can advocate for it just like they can any other fund,” Purdom said.

Donating to the SIF may appeal to alums and especially graduating seniors, Silberman said.

“Unlike most endowed funds at Brown — which typically require a $100,000 minimum investment — the Sustainable Investment Fund will welcome gifts of any size,” according to a University news release published June 2016.

Correction: A previous version of this article cited Vazira Zamindar as saying that Paxson suggested that ACCRIP appoint a task force on sustainability and social responsibility less targeted on climate change and the environment. In fact, Zamindar wrote that ACCRIP’s feedback to Paxson’s proposal suggested that she include climate change and be more specific about the issue of environmental responsibility.