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President Paxson Q&A Part One: Talking politics of divestment, referendum

Part one of Herald question-and-answer dives into campus dialogue on divestment

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, April 15, 2019

This is the first of a two part question-and-answer session.

Between March 19 and 21, students voted in favor of a referendum to divest the University’s endowment from companies “complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine” and ask the University to increase transparency about the endowment. Sixty-nine percent of those who voted, or 27.5 percent of total undergraduates, voted in favor of the referendum. The next day, President Christina Paxson P’19 responded to the referendum by declining to act on its results, a decision she communicated in an email to the Brown community. Throughout the Undergraduate Council of Students’ campaign and following the vote, students responded in a number of op-eds and editorials in The Herald, taking a range of positions for and against the referendum and Paxson’s letter. On April 10, The Herald sat down with Paxson to ask questions and clarify her position on divestment and the referendum. This is the first section of a question-and-answer session with Paxson on the subject. The second half delves into the Investment Office’s function and the costs of divestment.

Why did the University decide against divesting from companies that, as Brown Divest has argued, profit from Israeli human rights violations?

Divestment decisions — which are very rare — are made on the basis of a well-defined set of principles that the University has followed for a long time. (These principles) get at deep moral and ethical issues applied to the facts of the situation. We don’t do this by popular vote. … A referendum that garners the majority of whoever is voting is not the way that these types of issues are decided.

So, your response was motivated more by the process that Brown Divest advocated for than political or financial reasons?

My sense (of Brown Divest) is that what students were talking about was not the behavior of the companies in question. We don’t divest from countries, we divest from companies, and the whole campaign was much more about … ‘is there social harm being done by Israel or not?’ And that’s a really important question. But when it comes to divestment, that’s not the relevant question. The relevant question is whether (the) companies that are mentioned are engaged in morally abhorrent behavior. I don’t think that was really what the conversation on campus was about. I think it had much more to do with people’s political views about Israel’s actions.

Because Brown Divest identified specific companies and their actions, how is their argument advocating for divestment from a country as a whole, rather than these specific companies? 

If you were to … apply this to the (Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies) principles that we have, you’d need to say, ‘is the fact that (Hewlett-Packard) is selling (the Basel biometric control system) to Israel — is this something that constitutes really exceptionally grave social harm?’ Compared to something (we’ve divested from) like tobacco, which is a case where the company’s product itself has no redeeming social value, … it’s very hard to separate that social harm from the manufacturers. That’s a case that seems to be very different from this, where … the product is being purchased by a group that is being accused of doing something wrong. … So, what I didn’t see was a very clear articulation of the social harm caused by the companies.

What should Brown Divest have done if they wanted University action or to elicit something from ACCRIP? 

They could have, and they still could, submit a petition to ACCRIP. That would be a valid way forward for them. I’ve met with some of the students who have been involved with Brown Divest and told them that. In 2013, ACCRIP did take up a petition from Students for Justice in Palestine that requested recommendation to divest from companies that conducted business in the occupied territories, and ACCRIP voted against moving that forward. … I want people to understand that we have a process, and we follow it. I’m not saying that because I think that decision is necessarily going to stand forever, but the last official word from ACCRIP was not to divest.

The University has in the past made statements and taken action that is political in nature, such as support for students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. What makes this different?

If the University starts taking political positions, we run the risk of undermining academic freedom on the campus. If we say we’re the university that opposes Israel, how can we have scholarship and debate on what’s happening in the Middle East? … So, we shouldn’t, in most cases, take political positions. We want members of our community to do the research and do the thinking to become really informed citizens, so they develop their own convictions and act accordingly. …  You note that sometimes we’ll come out and take policy positions, and those are a little bit different than political positions. … When I take a policy position, I’m always thinking very carefully about whether the issue is core to our mission. So, when I come out in support of certain types of immigration policies, it’s because we need our international students if we’re going to be able to do what we do well. … Similarly, we have DACA students right here on campus, we have undocumented students right here on campus. It’s our obligation to try to protect them as best we can. So I see those issues as being very directly related to Brown’s mission.

You’ve said that choosing not to divest is abstaining from the political conversation, but many have argued that it is a political statement in itself. What is your response to that?

I think that is not a sound argument. People who say that are saying, ‘I want to force Brown into a yes or no choice here, and if you don’t say yes, then we’re going to say that you’ve said no. Either you’re against Israel or you’re for Israel.’ By choosing not to divest, we are not saying anything about whether we’re for or against Israel. Our obligation is to run the endowment, to have great, long-term, risk-adjusted returns … and in very rare cases to apply moral principles to how we invest. And by not acting on every human rights issue that comes to the attention of the University, that certainly doesn’t mean that we’re condoning behavior.

Almost a hundred faculty recently published an op-ed arguing that your response to the referendum discredits student activism. Are you concerned that your response will stifle future student activism?

I am a big supporter of student activism. … I would never want to suppress it. …If students thought that I was chastising them for being activists, that certainly wasn’t the case. … When the Brown Divest campaign was going on … and they put up for one day an apartheid wall, they had the support of the University to do those things just as any student group would have. … It doesn’t mean that they’re always going to get the answer that they want from the administration.

In your email, you express concern that divestment has polarized the Brown community. Has this issue divided the campus in a damaging way?

If we… continue to say ‘Brown’s got to take a position one way or the other,’ that could be extremely damaging and divisive. I’ve talked to a number of students, as well as faculty members, who were deeply disturbed by the campaign, who felt like they couldn’t say what was on their mind. … In a lot of people’s minds, … Israel and Jewish identity are so tightly intertwined that it’s impossible for people to think about these issues without believing that calls for divestment from Israel represent anti-Semitism. … I really appreciate the fact that the students involved in the Brown Divest campaign were very open at saying ‘this is not about anti-Semitism.’ …But, I think we have to confront the reality that anti-Semitism is on the rise in this country and around the world, and a lot of people are feeling very threatened. …The day after I wrote my letter, a large number of Corporation members got an email from somebody — I don’t know who it was, I don’t think it was anybody affiliated with Brown — that was one of the most vile, anti-Semitic emails I’ve ever seen. So, this kind of conversation has to be conducted carefully. … And the same is true on the other side. We have to guard against Islamophobia, too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This article appeared in print under the headline “Paxson talks divestment politics, referendum.”