Sixty-three students from seven universities sent a letter Tuesday to President Ruth Simmons, commending her leadership in publicly responding to allegations of workers' rights violations by HEI Hotels and Resorts and asking her to encourage their schools to follow Brown's example and reconsider their investments in HEI.
In February, Simmons sent a letter to the CEO of HEI stating that any mistreatment of employees by the company "would be a matter of deep concern and contrary to our standards of investing." Since then, Brown has become an example of campus activism against HEI, which is accused by some of its workers of using intimidation and threats to prevent unionization.
"Universities kind of copy each other and listen to each other," said Olivia Singer '12, a member of the Student Labor Alliance, explaining why other universities have recently rethought investing in HEI. "On this issue, we're definitely the leaders."
Yale's Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility recently decided to reconsider its investments in HEI, which was "largely a result of Ruth Simmons' letter," said Jonathan Macey, professor of law and chair of the committee.
"The fact that she wrote the letter suggested to me that she must have some new information," Macey said, since both Brown and Yale had decided a year ago that there was not enough substantive evidence against HEI to merit divestment.
"We're going to take a number of steps to reach out to our counterparts at Brown" to understand that information and the motivation for her letter, he said.
Though Brown has not divested from HEI, and Simmons' letter did not indicate any plans to divest, "she wouldn't have written this letter unless she had some basis for doing so," Macey said.
Eleven Yale students signed Tuesday's letter to Simmons, in which they wrote, "Anything you can do to encourage our own universities to follow Brown's leadership and support the rights of HEI hotel workers will be much appreciated."
"The fact that both Brown and Yale have taken public steps and questioned HEI is really important," said Sarah Furman, a junior at the University of Notre Dame who signed Tuesday's letter and is a member of the unofficial student group Campus Labor Action Project at Notre Dame. "Clearly there's something questionable about what they're doing because these two huge universities have already questioned them."
Furman and the other members of the group hope to meet with Notre Dame's chief investment officer over the next week, she said, adding that she plans to use Simmons' letter to refute his past claims that there were not any substantial complaints against HEI.
"That's one of the first things we're going to bring up," she said.
According to a March 15 press release from the Brown Student Labor Alliance, Simmons' letter marked the first time that any university had publicly questioned HEI's labor practices.
"We're certainly very pleased with the letter President Simmons has written," said Jesse Strecker '10, a member of SLA.
"We stand by our record as an employer," HEI spokesman Jess Pettit told The Herald in March. He called the allegations against his company "hearsay and not truthful," according to a Feb. 16 article in the Daily Pennsylvanian.
Strecker said he was convinced that HEI has committed workers' rights violations, adding that he and students from other schools will continue to work towards complete divestment.
"A big part of what we'll do is trying to induce other universities to follow our suit," he said.