Over the past few weeks, as the Brown student body has debated the question of whether we should divest from companies aiding Israeli operations in the Occupied Territories — for example by selling products that contribute to violence against civilians — I have noticed my views shifting. I don’t presume to know what the correct choice is, but I have found myself disagreeing with the arguments President Paxson P'19's presents in her response to the Brown student body’s vote in support for divestment from companies “facilitating human rights abuses in Palestine.”
In her letter, President Paxson writes that “As a university, Brown’s … role is not to take sides on contested geopolitical issues.” Leaving aside the argument that maintaining our current investments is not a neutral stance but rather as much a political statement as divestment would be, it seems to me that “taking sides” is not equivalent to taking responsibility for our finances — and Brown has in the past recognized the ethical imperative of doing the latter. Surely it was a proud moment in Brown’s history when we convened the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to guide the University in taking responsibility and pursuing repair for the role that we played in supporting the institution of slavery — and for the fact that our early endowment benefited directly from that institution. In the early decades of Brown’s history, enslavement would have been a “contested geopolitical issue.” But it was true then, and it is true now, that sometimes our ethical responsibilities compel us to adjust how the University finances its work, even if doing so means stepping onto contentious political ground. The point here is not to draw a moral equivalence between enslavement and the Israeli government’s actions in the Occupied Territories. It is instead to demonstrate that Brown’s history provides an honorable precedent for accepting moral responsibility for our finances.
It is worth noting the CSJ’s report praised the expansion of the duties of the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policy, the University body that reviews the ethics of our investments. ACCRIP’s projects have included, among other actions, successfully recommending that the University divest from tobacco companies, firms doing business in Darfur and, most recently, a chain of hotels whose management consistently violated labor laws.
As President Paxson mentions in her letter, ACCRIP has also urged Brown to “initiate dialogue about possible divestment from companies that do business in the occupied territories.” However, while on the one hand applauding Brown investment professionals for “maintaining the highest standards of integrity,” she has refused to accept our own investment ethics committee’s recommendation for so much as dialogue about “possible” divestment in this instance. We cannot have it both ways; what exactly do our commitments to integrity and ethics in investments mean if we fail to commit to even having the discussions our own ethics advisors recommend?
Further, President Paxson herself has elsewhere demonstrated a willingness to lead Brown to take a stance on contemporary political debates, as when she — admirably, in my view — called on President Donald Trump to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program while working with Congress on a path to permanent, legal citizenship. One might say that this case was different given that DACA directly affects Brown’s ability to attract qualified students, yet this was not President Paxson’s rationale. Instead, she made a much broader appeal to the contributions immigrants make to our country and to the fact that many DACA recipients did not themselves choose to come to the U.S. illegally. What criteria, then, might we employ to decide when it is appropriate for Brown to enter into political debates?
Perhaps President Paxson offers one possible answer to this question with another major argument she presents in her letter: that “instead of polarizing calls for divestment, the Brown community can continue to engage in productive discourse on this issue.” Here, I am concerned about the suggestion that “polarization” is a good enough reason to abandon a particular discussion, such as one calling for divestment. I am much more inclined to the view President Ruth J. Simmons Simmons expressed when, writing in response to the CSJ’s publication of its final report, she stated that “(t)he Committee deserves praise for demonstrating so steadfastly that there is no subject so controversial that it should not be submitted to serious study and debate.” I agree: I believe the Brown community is fully capable of respectful and vigorous debate on ethically significant questions, even when “polarized.”
President Paxson also worries that the act of divestment (separately from a debate over divestment) would “polarize the Brown community and detract from the inclusive, intellectually-vibrant community we aspire to be.” I am not sure I see how divestment would affect Brown’s intellectual vibrancy or our inclusivity, and I’m especially unsure about the suggestion that because divestment is polarizing, it is also undesirable. Since a decision not to divest is arguably as much a political decision as divestment, both courses of action would seem to be similarly polarizing. And anyway, would a polarizing University policy necessarily be undesirable? If my previous paragraph is persuasive, then we have no reason to fear that polarization will spill over into distrust and disrespect. In fact, the discussions I have observed about potential divestment in student group information sessions, student publications, and dining halls over the past few weeks seem to me the realization of the sort of “inclusive, intellectually vibrant community” we aim to create, not a danger to it.
On the other hand, if the concern is that a University policy is in some way illegitimate if not supported by a large segment of the student body, I would point out that fully 69 percent of participating students voted yes on the referendum; on most ballots, that would be considered a landslide. And in any case, supposing we were ethically required to divest, would that not override any concern about divestment’s potential to polarize the Brown community?
There may be some good reasons not to divest; indeed, we have seen some formidable arguments to that effect in The Brown Daily Herald and elsewhere. But as far as I am able to see, the reasons presented in President Paxson’s letter are not among them.
Leela Cañuelas-Puri ’22 is an Op-Ed contributor and can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.