You may have noticed the sexy fliers dotting campus, the witty Facebook group or the slightly more sensible article on the front page of The New York Times. The posters around campus say that it’s urgent, Facebook says it’s cool and The New York Times says that students at schools across the nation are talking about it. Is it surprising and unprecedented that this buzzword — “divestment” — has made its way over to Yale? Rhetorical question, and the answer is no.
Actually, Fossil Free Yale is not the first group of students to urge Yale to divest for a social cause — it has been a recurring theme, in various forms and for various causes, over the past four decades.
This all started in 1970, when four Yale professors and two graduate students led a seminar called “Yale’s Investments,” which focused on the social consequences of the endowment returns of universities and other nonprofit institutions. Two years later, three of those professors published “The Ethical Investor,” a book defining guidelines to “express the minimum moral obligation to which all institutions and individuals are subject.” These principles treat and evaluate issues of social responsibility in investment. The Yale Corporation then adopted these principles, and The New York Times triumphantly declared Yale “the first university to resolve this issue by abandoning the role of passive institutional investor.”
At the crux of the book is the concept of “grave social injury.” “The Ethical Investor” defines social injury as the harmful impact of companies violating the basic freedoms of individuals, and argues that universities should avoid such investments.
In addition to establishing criteria for ethical investing to avoid social injury, the University formed two committees: the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR) and the Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility (CCIR). Both of these groups consider investor responsibility and make policy recommendations to the Yale Corporation.
In the past four decades, however, Yale has only actively divested a handful of times. In the first case, amid the wave of student demonstrations sweeping the country, ACIR examined the implications of supporting companies operating in apartheid South Africa. After eight years of University investigation and student activism on campus, Yale eventually divested from 17 companies operating in South Africa in 1994, but not before over 150 other universities across the country had already divested completely.
Several years later, the ACIR began to scrutinize the tobacco industry. Yale never divested, but did establish tobacco-related proxy resolutions — voting guidelines that called for increased education on the risks of tobacco and restrictions on sales and advertising to minors.
Yale was more decisive when considering its response to the genocide perpetrated by the government of Sudan in the Darfur region. Only a month after the ACIR presented to the CCIR, the Corporation divested from seven oil and gas companies operating in Sudan that were supporting the Sudanese government economically. Students from the law and management schools tried to follow suit by highlighting the violence and injury occurring in the Congo. They urged Yale to divest from mineral-seeking software companies operating there, but were less successful.
Two years ago, several impassioned Yale students formed the Responsible Endowment Project and criticized a hotel company called HEI Hotels & Resorts for its notoriously poor labor conditions and exploitation of women and minorities. They were not alone in their endeavors: Students from other Ivy League schools successfully urged their universities to divest from HEI. After three years, Yale chose not to re-invest, a decision made by the Investments Office rather than the ACIR.
There were many times over the past several decades when the University did less than many of its peers. However, this trend can be reversed. There is no better time than now to take a stand and effect change. Yes, we do have a $19 billion endowment, but our greatest asset is our status as a role model and pioneer for universities across the nation and around the world. It is our obligation to prove that our students and our University prioritize the future — not just through our LEED-certified buildings and recycling bins — but in a more monumental manner, one that will send a message to our peer universities, to our students and faculty and to the government that we do not support the business of placing our planet and our future in jeopardy.
Alice Buckley is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .