Divestment marks win for measured inquiry

In this space yesterday, we assessed the loss of Larry Summers as president of Harvard. With Summers deposed by established interests in Cambridge, his laudable and revolutionary proposals for reform seem unlikely to bear fruit. But we would be remiss if we continued to neglect a revolutionary action that did come to pass here at Yale last week: the University’s divestment from Sudan.

Obviously, this reform was somewhat different from expansions to a freshman seminar program or a switch from core courses to distribution requirements. For the University’s student activists, though, the success of this divestment campaign — which culminated with the blacklisting of seven corporations linked to the brutal Sudanese regime — demonstrates that there is a better way to fight such injustice than by marching on the Investments Office on Whitney Avenue.

For the record, we see nothing wrong with the grassroots action of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, or the divestment resolution of the Yale College Council. We have, however, taken issue with the tactics of organizations that contributed to this debate only unrealistic protests for investment disclosure. They have followed this pattern whenever a Yale holding draws concern, from Compton Petroleum’s natural gas wells outside Calgary to the Niko drilling projects in Bangladesh’s Tengratila fields. It hasn’t worked.

The Yale Corporation’s unanimous divestment vote suggests that the Fellows were simply waiting for someone to provide a smoking gun, and neither marching nor chants do much to further realistic divestment goals. The evidence they were looking for came from a joint report issued by the Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic and Yale’s own Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility.

We find it telling that this research was born from ACIR’s annual public meeting last March, when committee members asked to work with Lowenstein representatives following their measured, well-documented analysis of the tragedy in Sudan and the realities of corporate interests there. Immediately afterward, representatives from a handful of other, more protest-minded groups presented a critical assault on Yale’s secretive investment policies, touching off an hour-long firestorm of vitriol. Apparently, the former tactic was more effective.

Granted, we find it frustrating that those who drafted the divestment proposal had to conduct their research with zero knowledge of Yale’s investment portfolio. Since they were forced to examine every company operating in Sudan for ties to its government, it is no wonder that their report took nearly an entire year to complete.

But we understand the practical realities of Yale’s investment policy, and this divestment remains a victory for ACIR, for Lowenstein and for everyone uncomfortable with the question mark that represents the University’s portfolio. Yale has become one of the few universities to take a leadership role in the Sudan divestment movement.

And beyond the Sudan, this campaign serves as proof that thorough research and measured arguments truly can reform Yale’s portfolio. It may take some time, but confronting investment concerns in this fashion is infinitely more valuable than confronting the security guard at 55 Whitney.

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