I was digging through the community organizing archives at the John Hay Library recently, reading up on the illustrious history of activism at Brown, when I came across a few yellowed Vietnam War-era Herald clippings reporting on the student campaign to compel Brown to divest from the Dow Chemical Company, a manufacturer of napalm and Agent Orange for the American military. The students were hardly alone in their distaste for the fact that their government was waging chemical warfare in Southeast Asia, but the particular salience of the issue for them came only when they discovered that Brown was invested in Dow to the tune of a few million dollars. Immediately, the University's Dow investments transformed the Vietnam War, in students' eyes, from a question of sympathetic political anger to one of personal complicity. What had been merely an immoral travesty became an immoral travesty that Brown and, by corollary, all tuition-paying students here, were actively sustaining.
The Dow articles jumped out at me for the fact that they foreshadow students' recognition today — both at Brown and at schools across the country — that university investments are how global problems become campus problems. When we think of university politics and student interests, we naturally think first of the obvious, quintessentially collegiate issues — tuition, financial aid, layoffs, curricula. But investments have a nasty way of bringing it all back home. Especially at wealthy institutions like Brown, they are how we as students and the colleges we attend become directly tied up in the things that at first glance do not seem relevant to university life — the kinds of things that turn your stomach when they show up on the front page of the New York Times.
Brown's investments are why issues like Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories or the genocide in Darfur are not just questions of global politics taken up for our intellectual or moral indulgence. Instead, they are just as much matters for student concern as next year's tuition hike. Every divestment campaign that students here have waged — Dow, South Africa, tobacco, Darfur, the occupation of Palestine, HEI — is a proclamation that we are not simply concerned because we are angry but because we are personally implicated as long as Brown remains invested in companies that prop up global outrages.
Just as the students behind the Dow campaign sought not only to end chemical warfare but to disentangle themselves from it personally, today's divestment campaigns are concerned not purely with labor rights abuses or the Israeli occupation but with ending our own role in supporting them. At stake in the University's investment policies, then, is Brown's moral standing and our own personal accountability for political issues that play out at the national and global level.
The University administration's refusal to adopt needed investment transparency reforms is problem enough in this regard, because it precludes the Brown community from seeing how the administration spends our money in our name. We have no way of knowing what we are tied up in, and we are reduced, as in the case of HEI, to waiting for a problematic company to brag publicly about where it gets its money.
Worse, though, the bureaucratic organization that Brown entrusts with divestment power, the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies, has no more access to the University's investment portfolio than anyone else. The very body responsible for investment oversight works blindly. (It also violates its own charter by meeting in secret, but that's a story for another column.)
Without investment transparency for ACCRIP or the community at large, students who are rightfully worried about where their dollars are going are reduced to taking shots in the dark, forced to name every objectionable company that Brown might be invested in and getting ACCRIP to pass a divestment resolution for each and every one — at which point the administration and Corporation can simply reject the call. It is, after all, only an advisory committee.
To say that this would be a Sisyphean moral undertaking is an understatement, and the sheer comedy of the present bureaucracy makes meaningful endowment reform all the more urgent. Until the University community can see how its own money is being invested, and until the community has the power to democratically pass binding divestment resolutions, we will remain personally complicit — each and every one of us — in whatever global disgraces are being perpetrated by whichever irresponsible companies our profit-seeking investment office has decided we should support.
Simon Liebling '12 is from New Jersey. He can be reached at simon.liebling at gmail.com.