Brown’s investment decision unclear

Despite reports that Brown will halt further investments in the controversial HEI Hotels & Resorts chain, a statement by Brown’s investment committee shows that the university has not definitively agreed to do so.

Brown announced in mid-February that it would follow a unanimous recommendation by the university’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policy regarding HEI, which has been accused of mistreating its workers and interfering with their unionizing activities. While members of Yale’s Undergraduate Organizing Committee (UOC) and Brown’s Student Labor Alliance have praised what they see as Brown’s decision to abstain from future investments in HEI, the phrasing of the committee’s actual recommendation leaves unclear whether Brown will invest additional funds in the hotel chain.

“It has been widely reported as a fact of the matter that [Brown is] not going to put more money in HEI,” said Jonathan Macey, the chairman of Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. “But I don’t believe that to be true. That is not what this recommendation says, if you read it very carefully.”

The recommendation that Brown University President Ruth Simmons and the corporation accepted states that Brown “should refrain from reinvesting in HEI until the Corporation is confident that HEI adheres to our high standards regarding respectful and humane treatment of workers,” but does not explicitly say that Brown will unconditionally refrain from further investment in HEI.

Nigel Hurst, senior vice president of human resources for HEI, offered the same interpretation of Brown’s decision in a Feb. 15 interview with the News. Brown said it would not make a decision about future investments “until there is an investment opportunity,” Hurst said — not that it would necessarily forgo future investments. Brown’s current holdings in HEI remain unchanged.

Brown officials could not immediately be reached for comment Monday night.

At its core, Macey said Brown’s decision to accept the recommendation was a strategic one.

“They’re trying to have their politically correct cake and eat it too,” he said. “But they’re in the exact same position as we are. We have ethical standards and when we make future decisions, we are going to make sure that companies adhere to those ethical standards.”

Complicating the committee’s evaluation of HEI, Macey said members of the UOC presented new information about the company and the general mistreatment of hotel workers at the Feb. 22 meeting of Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. The materials contained a summary of concerns about HEI’s business practices. They cited a June 2010 settlement between HEI and worker Ferdi Lazo mediated by the National Labor Relations Board, and provided facts from the union UNITE HERE about the harm hotel work causes to housekeepers. The packet the UOC compiled also summarized protests and complaints lobbied against HEI since October 2010.

According to the UOC, Yale’s investment in HEI totals at least $119 million.

Macey said members of his committee will meet with UOC individuals in the coming weeks, before reviewing the UOC materials and conversations at the committee’s next meeting. Until then, Macey said, Yale is unlikely to shift its policies regarding HEI. He added that his committee will try to reach future decisions with “transparency and integrity.”

“There’s a great lack of transparency about what [Brown has] actually done,” Macey said. “If you talk to people on the investments side of it, they don’t think Brown has done anything. If you talk to people on the organizing side of it, they think Brown has taken this huge step. I’m just jealous because they’re so much more politically adept than I am.”

The Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility will meet next on March 22.

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