Students call for ‘ethical endowment’

If the students of the Responsible Endowment Project have their way, members of the Yale community could soon have a greater role in determining where the University’s $16.3-billion endowment is invested.

At the Yale Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility’s annual open meeting Thursday, members of the Project asked the 37-year-old ACIR — which currently counsels the Yale Corporation’s Committee on Investor Responsibility on investment decisions — to reevaluate its role at the University. Calling for the Yale Investments Office to disclose the University’s holdings to the ACIR and the public, for Yale to voice ethical concerns with the companies in which it invests, and for the committee itself to issue an annual report on its activities, Project members also proposed adding two more students to the committee.

The ACIR met in December 2009 to hear the proposal for the first time. Since then, the committee has discussed it further and used the open meeting as an opportunity to question the Project members again.

ACIR chair and law professor Jonathan Macey said only that the committee is considering the proposal. The committee will decide by Feb. 20 whether to recommend the proposal to the CCIR. Still, students said they are hopeful the ACIR would eventually adopt their proposal.

“This committee has taken very few actions in the first place — they don’t even recommend that many things to CCIR,” said Aaron Podolny ’12, who presented the Project’s proposal to an audience of about 50. “This proposal is that first step to having an ethical endowment.”

Though ACIR members agreed it was important for the University to make ethical investment decisions, they said it would be difficult to publish a full list of Yale’s assets — or screen them effectively.

It may not be possible to create transparency in the endowment without sacrificing the high returns Chief Investment Officer David Swensen is accustomed to bringing in for Yale, said Stephen Murphy ’87, an associate vice president for financial planning and analysis who serves on the ACIR.

ACIR member Julia Knight ’11 added that different parts of the Yale community may not be able to agree on what values Yale should follow when deciding on investments.

“How do you propose that the revised ACIR would deal with the diversity of issues in the Yale community?” she said.

Students said the ACIR, which includes two students, two alumni, two faculty and two staff members, has never changed to equip itself for dealing with complex modern investing. In the past, a majority of Yale’s holdings were shares in publicly traded companies, allowing the University to voice concerns as a shareholder. But today, more and more of Yale’s endowment is distributed among alternative assets, such as private equity and real estate, so the ACIR can only advise the CCIR to take advantage of Yale’s shareholder votes, or to sell off the relevant holdings.

Under the students’ proposal, the ACIR would advise Corporation fellows overseeing Yale’s investments on divestment and shareholder voting and would screen the endowment annually as well as voice concerns about five companies or assets. The Project members also asked the Investments Office to provide the ACIR with a full list of current investments every quarter and the public with a list of the University’s investments from the previous year.

The students also proposed adding another graduate student and another undergraduate to the committee. In addition, they call for all members of the ACIR to be elected by their constituents — faculty, for example, would vote for the two faculty members on ACIR. Currently, University President Richard Levin appoints its members.

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