Put your money where your mouth is
Published: Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 01:11
Democratic participation is a fine thing to advertise on an admissions tour. Many of us probably chose to come here because of the emphatic focus we were told that Tufts places on active citizenship. I even recall University President Lawrence Bacow himself insisting on 100-percent voter turnout for last year's presidential election in his welcome address to my class.
It is as striking as it is disappointing, then, that Tufts fails to cast its own ballot. What do I mean by this? As far as we know, our Board of Trustees fails to practice what's almost ironically known as active ownership by abstaining from filing for or voting on shareholder resolutions — the financial equivalent of absentee ballots, according to senior Gabe Frumkin, founding member of the Advisory Committee for Shareholder Responsibility.
While the term shareholder resolution may sound like financial jargon, its real-world implications touch on issues that most of us Jumbos care deeply about. It is basically a referendum vote initiated by a concerned shareholder on a particularly disagreeable company practice. Such practices can pertain to anything from environmental impact to workers' rights to discrimination — and they all seem to be ignored by Tufts. What's more, however, non-participation in this process is not really even an option: Not voting is counted as voting with management. We thus grant the companies in which we're invested a veritable carte blanche. Business and values, we seem to be told, are separable things.
But if the extolment of social responsibility at this university does not apply to where our most tangible form of social influence — money — is going, it means nothing at all. The happy progressive exterior of Tufts.edu is suddenly marred when one reflects that it may all be resting on money linked intimately with war and pollution. I'm not being sensational: We implicitly endorse the anonymous companies in which Tufts is invested. To whatever social ills they inflict, we are implicit accomplices. But perhaps I am remiss in going so far as to say "we," as this light upon a hill makes its investments in near total darkness (the Sustainable Endowments Institute recently assessed Tufts with a fat "D" in transparency). It is left, then, to our imagination as to where our trustees are sending our money. Tufts alumni are therefore rightfully leery of donating to this black hole of an endowment, as many demonstrated in last year's petition for increased endowment transparency.
But things don't have to be this way. Neighboring schools, such as Williams College and Harvard and Brown universities, have already begun to make the necessary reforms. For example, Brown has established a student-run Socially Responsible Investment Fund to which alumni concerned about where their contributions may be headed can choose to donate their money. It's a small but significant step in the right direction, and it's just one example of ways universities can demonstrate that social and fiscal responsibility are perfectly compatible. Furthermore, most community investments (just one form of socially responsible investing) have returns at market rates — that is, they can sustain our university financially just as well as other investments. Also, in this era of transition towards a green economy, not destroying our only planet has become both an existential and economic boon.
If Tufts insists that its students invest themselves for the common good, I think students should insist that Tufts do the same. Let any respite from the heedless accumulation of capital begin with the university. What better place than at this light upon a hill to find some of the enlightened self-interest that has long been missing from American capitalism? For more on what we can do to demand that the administration put its money where its mouth is, come hang out with Students at Tufts for Investment Responsibility (STIR) Wednesdays at 8 p.m. in Room 112 in the campus center.
Nick Perricone is a sophomore majoring in philosophy and history. He is a member of STIR.