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Using Higher Ed.'s $340 Billion in Endowments to Make the World a Better Place

Morgan Simon of the Responsible Endowment Coalition is helping student activists across the U.S. leverage their school endowments.

Socially responsible investing, the use of financial investments for social good, is a powerful tool to promote economic and social democracy. It convinced Home Depot to stop using old growth timber, RJR Nabisco to discontinue its "Joe Camel" advertisements and ARCO to withdraw its operations from the totalitarian state of Burma -- and it's gaining popularity as a tool for activists.

But what about on college and university campuses across the country?

Campus activists have traditionally gone after corporate offenders on issues such as fair trade and sweat shops, and the multi-hundred billion dollar growth in school endowments in recent decades is a huge opportunity to change corporate behavior. Enter the Responsible Endowments Coalition (REC), which helps students and other university members to push corporate reform on human rights, environmental responsibility and equal opportunity. AlterNet caught up with REC executive director Morgan Simon to discuss the crucial role that endowments can play in forcing economic change.

AlterNet: Why is responsible investing a key vehicle for change on campuses, and why are students responsive to working on endowments as a form of activism?

Morgan Simon: Students are naturally interested in changing their campuses for the better, thinking about the structure of society and what's going to be effective: Sometimes that means taking over buildings, but it also means doing petitions and raising awareness on important social issues. Students are really starting to explore where their leverage point is in society.

Nationwide there's $340 billion worth of endowments at U.S. colleges and universities -- that's the leverage point and a pretty powerful message. Capital markets have the power to transform the society we live in. For me as an undergrad at Swarthmore College, which has a $1 billion endowment, I started thinking that this is where I could make some real impact. In general, the students that I talk to are thrilled to learn about responsible investing as a form of activism, because it is a a tactic and a tool kit that can be applied to all social and environmental justice issues. It doesn't matter if you're passionate about the environment, diversity issues, or equal opportunity on gender or race, genocide, the list goes on -- but students can apply responsible investment to all.

AlterNet: How do you deal with the obstacle of how complicated the various financial instruments are and how they operate?

Simon: One of REC's major emphases is helping students from all class backgrounds understand what a mutual fund is. A big hurdle is getting students to be fluent about the role of money in society -- that they aren't afraid of it. But the truth is that students don't have to understand everything about the market.What's key for them to understand is that their school is probably sitting on a big pot of money, and that there are a lot of fairly simple things those students can do to make the schools change their attitudes and practices with that money to support social justice and the environment.

AlterNet: Your literature also explains that you're also focused on reaching out to trustees and the college administration.

Simon: Yes, we talk to administrators and tell them that a focus on responsible investing is a great way to show student and alumnae what your values are, and teach your students to learn more about the financial world. It ties the student body much closer to administrators. And when this happens, the feedback we hear from students is, "Gosh, I had no idea how hard it is to run a school; how much it takes to run an endowment and that trustees are very often volunteeers who really care about the school." It builds relationships of trust.

There's also the issue for school administrators that colleges and universities are nonprofit, mission-driven institutions; they don't pay taxes. Is it the case that there are financial institutions that happen to run a school, or are they mission-based institutions that believe in a cause and have an investing arm that's part of it? Are a school's assets supporting its mission 100 percent of the time? That's the same conversation that the foundation world has to consider.

This is a different tack that a lot of campus campaigns take, which frequently pit students against the administration. In many instances, the trustees just need to be made aware of the power that their endowments have from a shareholder perspective -- that you don't have to change the stocks you're holding, but that you can use the power of your stock in the company to change its practices. We can tell the school administration, "Look you'll either make the exact same amount of money, or you might even improve the value of those stocks because the responsible practices you're pushing for will improve the company's value.

I got my start telling Swarthmore to hold a shareholder resolution with Lockheed Martin on sexual orientation discrimination, and the big argument there was why would you cut out 10 percent of your potential applicant pool? That's just a dumb financial decision, in addition to the morality of the issue.

AlterNet: This raises the question of who is deciding what returns you need? Because if the people at Harvard decide they need to make 23, 24 percent a year, you're going to have a harder time doing that, doing socially responsible investing. Is that a greed factor -- why are they deciding they need to make returns far beyond what most normal people will ever see?

Simon: I understand that a lot of people say that it's important to get a maximum return, but fiduciary law says that you're supposed to get a "reasonable" return. Well, what does "reasonable" mean? It's also the issue that your actions are supposed to serve your mission. And if you're contradicting your mission with your investing, then that isn't the right return. In our case, for example, we're not saying, "You shouldn't have the money for scholarships." We really do think they can make reasonable returns even when they follow responsible patterns of investment.

AlterNet: In addition to the issue of defining what a reasonable return is, there's the issue of defining what socially responsible means. Your literature says that you "allow the work of your member to define the goals of the causes of your members to define the work" of your organization.

Simon: In general, we present a menu of options, saying, "You have X amount of money in bonds, you should put it in a community bank or a green bank. You've got money in public equities, so you should be voting your proxy statements." We can help set up committees on investor responsibility, where students are part of the mix and come together with administrators and trustees, and explain about the possibilities they have to make proxy votes. And then we leave it up to them on how the committee decides. It's not about us dictating the values; it's about us saying, "You have a voice as a shareholder."

AlterNet: You said that many times it's the issue that schools simply don't use their shareholder power in the annual meetings.

Simon: Princeton, for example, does not use its stockholdings to vote in shareholder meetings. Most of the time, if you don't vote your proxy under the law, it counts as a vote for management. So when schools say, "We don't want to politicize our endowment," they are anyway. Every time they throw their vote away, they are effectively making the statement that they don't care about the changes they could have voted for.

AlterNet: How does the approach you're taking conflict with the idea of divestment, like dropping stocks in companies that are making money in ways that encourage humanitarian crises?

Simon: You can't divest in everything you don't like, because then where are you going to invest? Oftentimes, it's not that a company is in a developing country, it's that some of the company's practices there are unjust or bad for the environment. You can engage with that company's practices at the shareholder meeting, or you can divest your holdings in it -- but did the company stop doing what you didn't like about it? Of course, sometimes the company is directly tied to causing genocides, and then the issue of divestment comes into play in terms of what a school's mission is.

AlterNet: What's a recent successful campaign you've worked on?

Simon: Students we worked with at Macalester College got the school to put $500,000 of their operating budget into a local community bank. Students worked with the school's local community office of the college to make a big push to get students and faculty to move their money into the community bank as well. It was a win for everyone -- the school got great publicity, the activists saw their campaign work, and a lot of students who change banks now have the experience that they don't just have to open an account with any bank -- but instead can lay claim to a bank of their choosing that also will invest in the community.

For more, visit Responsible Endowments Coalition.

Don Hazen is AlterNet's executive editor. Jan Frel is AlterNet's senior editor.