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UF students hunger strike for investment transparency

For students at the University of Florida, the path to socially responsible investment is one of empty stomachs.

About 10 students at UF have been on a hunger strike since last Wednesday as part of a campaign for transparency and community input in the university's investment of its $1.2 billion endowment, said Richard Gutierrez, a senior at UF who has consumed nothing but water for the last week. Students in the Gainesville, Fla., chapter of Students for a Democratic Society organized the strike after approaching the issue from "lots of angles" and being "talked down to and ignored" by the administration, Gutierrez said.

"All we had available in terms of tools of protest was our bodies," Gutierrez said. "So we're putting our bodies on the line to force our university to put its reputation on the line."

The campaign for transparency in investment began last year as a campaign for divestment from "certain profiteering firms," Gutierrez said. But when UF students found out that their university's endowment was invested "behind closed doors," Gutierrez said, the campaign transformed into a call for a "framework for democratic input" to be put into the investment process. When the university did not respond - even after 80 percent of students supported the idea in a student government referendum - SDS members decided to take more direct action.

The 10 students participating - half of whom are consuming only water and half of whom are consuming only liquids - have not heard from the administration, Gutierrez said. Though several students have had to break their fasts because of health concerns, some intend to keep fasting until the last day of classes, April 23, or the date of graduation, May 5. Others have said they will fast until they are hospitalized, Gutierrez said.

Stephen Orlando, a UF spokesman, said the university has been working with the students for several months, adding that the president and trustees have met with them three times. He said the university has not given in to students' demands in part because transparency would cause UF's investment to "lose its competitive edge."

On April 1, UF President Bernard Machen sent a letter to one of the students involved in the campaign, writing that the university "wholeheartedly (agrees) that there are certain circumstances in which UF should evaluate its investments."

He added that the board of trustees adopted a provision last year that allows it to "reconsider investments in corporations that could cause substantial social injury, such as those operating in apartheid nations."

The university is also reviewing a list of companies in which the State of Florida and the State Board of Administration have prohibited investments from the state's pension fund, and will use this as a guide for its investments, he wrote.

But he wrote that the university "does not believe that establishing a committee, as you recommend, is an effective option for a university this large and this diverse. A consensus of opinion would be impossible to reach."

Still, Orlando said the university "understands students' feelings."

"We feel like we're on the same page," he said.

But students participating in the hunger strike said their administration is a few pages behind.

"They haven't seemed to be supportive at all," said Simon Fitz-William, a senior at UF. "They agreed with the idea, but there has been no sort of support as far as implementing it."

Fitz-William broke his fast Tuesday after fainting, experiencing ringing in his ears and feeling "weak in body and in mind." He said he went 130 hours without any food.

Fitz-William said the strike will "put things in the face of the administration," but he said he does not expect the protest to yield a transparent investment policy.

"It's ethical, but it's not profitable," he said. "And in the capitalist realm that the university works in, ethical is not the goal. The administration really doesn't seem to care."

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