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.