Maltby: Yale’s choice, not ours

After a generation of supposed student apathy, many will breathe a sigh of relief to see Yale students returning to their traditional, earnest roots.

In the popular imagination, students should be long-haired liberals, parading around in unwashed sweatshirts and biodegradable sandals as they press worthy petitions on passersby. And although it’s a stereotype that contains plenty of material for mockery, it’s also a comforting image — the young should be willing to be engage in the world, should believe that their ideas have consequences and, most of all, should provide the older generations with the entertainment of watching them go through the same motions their forebears went through decades before. Most paradigms of human behavior are, after all, comforting.

So it’s sad to see the latest incarnation of student activism demonstrate some of the worst traits of its kind. The increased activity of the Responsible Endowment project bears all the hallmarks of classic student activism.

Yesterday morning a group of Yalies marched on the Yale Investments Office, demanding that Chief Investment Officer David Swensen meet with a California hotel worker who claims that a Yale-backed hotel exploits and mistreats him and other employees. They also claim Yale invests in environmentally unsustainable projects and a range of other ethically dubious enterprises.

Now no one, not even an evil conservative like me, is going to advocate for the abuse of hotel employees. If the company in question, HEI, is breaking the law, then no doubt all of its backers, Yale included, will want to investigate and ensure the legal security of their position. That’s why we have laws, which protect the basic rights of employees as the state understands them.

The question becomes far more complicated when our attention turns to investments that are within gray areas of the law, or are even entirely legal but morally questionable. And although our hearts may bleed at this point, as students today, we need to acknowledge that we do not have the authority in ourselves to tell Yale how to invest. The reason? It’s not our money.

When a fund manager invests on behalf of a client, it remains the client’s decision which moral codes apply. It’s not, after all, the manager’s money: It’s the clients’. There are still basic practical considerations. One should not invest in projects that will undermine the structures of the system in which one is operating; in real terms, this means that in a world of state-sponsored capitalism, no bank is going to want to invest in projects that benefit communist guerrillas. But if it’s a question of putting that pipeline through Tibet, it’s the client’s call.

A key element of the student stereotype is the assumption that the world revolves around us. We may even act as if the University is here to serve us — that’s the underlying attitude that absolves guilt when papers are turned in late, or professors treated like employees instead of leaders. In the case of our endowment, it’s a fallacy to assume we are the only shareholders in Yale’s financial future.

Yes, we are already a part of the Yale community. But so are the thousands, even millions, of students who may yet pass through Yale and benefit from the resources on offer — so too are the professors who rely on endowments to support their papers on medieval symbolism and Russian literature. After all, no one else is going to pay them to do it.

Even if we could establish an orthodoxy according to which every single student and professor currently at Yale agreed on the moral probity of each and every one of Yale’s investments, we could never guarantee such agreement between the intergenerational community of those who have come before us and those who are yet to come.

It is that community which is David Swensen’s client, and in the absence of clear directions from it, his job must remain to enrich it to the best of his (much-trumpeted) abilities. Recognizing our insignificance in this grander scheme may require a little humility, not a common element of the student stereotype.

Kate Maltby is a junior in Saybrook College.

Comments

  • jessica

    Thank you for making your point so eloquently!

  • Max

    I'm sorry, but I see absolutely no reason why Yalies shouldn't resist and protest against what they see as unethical investment. You're suggesting that we should hold our tongues unless the University is either acting illegally or in a way that directly harms us. I very much disagree; students absolutely ought to care and fight for ethical behavior on the part of the University.

    I will definitely admit that there are a lot of spoiled liberals in our generation who feel an inflated sense of entitlement, but this has nothing to do with that. They aren't protesting the investments because they feel entitled to have Yale represent their interests---they're protesting them because they feel that Yale is in the wrong.

    I think you would have done better to belittle their methods, rather than their purpose. But even then, I don't think the argument would hold much water; even just by landing an article in the YDN, they increased awareness of their cause.

  • Charles

    I totally agree with Kate! I have been pushing for Yale to invest in Sudanese oil ventures and diamond mining in Sierra Leone for years! I hear the rate of return is off the charts!

  • profit > human rights

    I think Yale's reluctance to divest from South Africa during apartheid was noble; Yale, as usual, was leading the way to a multi-billion dollar endowment-it didn't have time to worry about human rights; it had to focus on returns!
    As for genocide in Darfur, that's about as gray as global warming. Yale was right to resist divestment.

    As for the Yalies who care about the environment and human rights, how dare you question Yale's investment tactics! You should give all your financial aid back since you think some of Yale's money is dirty! We all know that the endowment ONLY pays for low-income students (who are now trying to bite the hand that feeds them!). It doesn't cover the everyday expenses of Yale University; the $50,000 that my parents pay every year covers that!
    If we want to keep paying for your financial aid, you should just accept what you get, or go to one of those "responsible" colleges, who are less endowed because of it!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comments Max. I actually agree with you that there's no reason why Yalies shouldn't voice concerns, and I said at the beginning of my article, "the young should be willing to be engage in the world, should believe that their ideas have consequences".
    My disagreement is not with the idea that students should voice their ideas, but with the assumption that it's the University's duty to agree with them. If hotel workers like Mr Landino are being mistreated, then it's absolutely essential that investors in his employers are informed, and I'm happy to "increase awareness" by letting them "land an article in the YDN". But then Yale will have to carefully discuss the issue with its partners in the relevant consortium, diplomatically protect its own reputation as a reliable partner, and send the message down the several tiers of part-investment that compromise all these coalitions. (Yale's involvement with the actual hotel is indirect - it owns 10% of a fund that in turn owns only a part of the hotel in question - and it has other financial relationships to protect).
    I'm more concerned with highlighting the (sometimes unfair) realities of the investment world than silencing healthy dialogue. Imagine an investment manger was keeping in trust the inheritance of a small child. That child (like the intangible 'Yale community') could not give coherent instructions about how she wanted her money managed, or what she considered ethical / unethical. The investment manager, therefore, would be left with the base instruction, which is always to conserve that child's financial future. It isn't pleasant, but it is the financial system as it stands today.

  • to kate:

    I have trouble following the argument above. Are you saying that a population who unknowingly will be at Yale in the future is solely the responsibility of a group of fund managers in the investment office? Can't the current members of Yale's community have a role in shaping the institution for posterity (in many ways, not just the endowment)? If not, this group has terribly little agency. This op-ed illustrates the reality of Yale's investment practices (and investing in general), something that REP and UOC seem to want to change, and uses that to criticize the efforts of the two groups. I don't see any validity in using the status quo as an argument against calls for change. If you really are "more concerned with highlighting the (sometimes unfair) realities of the investment world than silencing healthy dialogue," the title of your article is incongruously antagonistic.

  • REP member

    Ms. Maltby will find that many of Yale's investments (the ones that we, by chance or accident, know of) violate mission statements of the university.

    Consider this, from a 2002 collection of principles adopted by President Levin and others, regarding the University's commitment to the environment: "Striving for continuous environmental improvement across the entire range of its
    operations."

    This obviously should include the endowment, which is a university operation.

    It makes no sense that the University could work as hard as it has on preserving the environment, only to have its carbon abatement offset by preventable actions of companies in which it invests. Allowing hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in Maine to fall to development because of unsustainable practices is inexcusable.

    A conservative may not agree that the University has "duties" to be a "global leader" in "ethics," etc. etc., but the reality is that Yale's administration sees itself as precisely that. We are fooling ourselves to think that we can ethically allow endowment investing to offset all of our concerted efforts to improve the world.

    By the way, transparency can acceptably be delayed so that we don't find out what companies we are invested in for several years after the fact - as long as there is some incentive for the investment office to behave itself, that's fine.

  • anon

    Thank you for clarifying because the previous article implies that students who protest unethical university investments are selfish. However, I am still confused about you train of thought.

    "My disagreement is not with the idea that students should voice their ideas, but with the assumption that it's the University's duty to agree with them."

    In this case, the idea is that students have a duty to ensure that their university is upholding a moral character around the world. So students really are just voicing their ideas…but the idea in this case necessitates action. In many cases, voicing one's ideas and convincing others to listen to these ideas are inseparable.

    In any case, REP does not demand that the university agree with them at all. They have tried to contact the university in a number of different ways. They are trying to start a dialogue and they have repeatedly highlighted that a transparent endowment is a "conversation that we need to have." The thing is, with an attempt to engage by the university completely absent, students can only look to the glaring ethical errors…

  • alum

    So we should express our ideas but not act on them?

  • long-haired liberal

    a few quick thoughts:

    1) the university should at least be persuadable.

    2) allowing only-financially minded investments office members to judge what's ethical is as biased & myopic as leaving yale's investments entirely up to the uoc.

    3) also, workers and unions are much more qualified (& compelled) to report unethical work conditions than their employers or indirect investors.

    4)finally, it's nice to think that a swensen-spearheaded diplomatic discussion will trickle down to hei and jose will suddenly have adequate health care, but GET REAL. we need to yell about unfair working conditions to change them, not quietly disapprove of them behind closed doors.

  • REP member

    Apparently Yale students, as well as students on several other campuses, have been successful in rousing the HEI execs; HEI execs will be meeting in January with students from several different universities. Perhaps they are scared the universities may just listen to the justice-minded students!; Notre Dame's Chief Investment Officer, unlike David Swensen, has met, on several occasions, with concerned students and has taken action in their case. All we are asking is for a dialogue with the investments office-is this so radical?

  • To #4

    To #4
    Financial aid is not for low income students only. Do you consider up to $200,000 low income? I don't think so. Also, you seem to think that it is only those on financial aid who are "biting" the University.