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Swarthmore’s Investment Practices Questioned

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At 12:40 p.m. on Tuesday, six students went to the Investment Office with a list of 40 companies they identified as ethically objectionable, wanting to know whether the College is or has invested in any of them before. Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine, or SPJP, who organized the initiative, researched companies that not only contribute to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but also ones involved in fossil fuel, tobacco and arms production.Suzanne Welsh, the Vice President for Finance and Treasurer of the College, was expecting the students, who greeted and immediately handed her the prepared list of companies.

Danny Hirschel-Burns ’14, member of SPJP, spearheaded the meeting, and told Welsh that SPJP, along with many other student organizations on campus, wanted to know if Swarthmore has invested in companies like Motorola, Caterpillar, Philip Morris USA, Wal-Mart and ExxonMobil — all of which are, in their view, implicated in human rights violations across the world in some way or another.

Swarthmore, however, does not disclose its investment portfolio except to the Committee on Investor Responsibility. Welsh explained that the College hires a firm to handle part of the endowment, which the firm in turn invests.

“We give them an allocation of money from the endowment and they are buying and selling shares,” she said. “They have leeway within their specific mandate.”

Still, she agreed she would try to do what she could to provide the names of companies Swarthmore has invested in the last quarter.

According to SPJP members Sarah Dwider ’13 and Benjamin Bernard-Herman ’14, in the process of learning about the College’s investment practices, SPJP found out that Swarthmore does not screen the companies they invest in for ethical concerns.

“Most colleges have their endowment managers screen for some kinds of companies, which means that the college tells the people who manage their investments that there are certain companies that for moral or ethical reasons are irresponsible to invest in and therefore the college shouldn’t,” Bernard-Herman said. “The most well known industry-standard screens are for tobacco companies and arms manufacturers. Swarthmore is anomalous in that it doesn’t screen for either.”

Dwider says that they initially started looking at investment issues directly related to SPJP’s mission by finding companies that make a profit from the human rights violations taking place in the West Bank and Gaza. Some of these provide technology that enables the Israeli occupation (like bulldozers that aid home demolitions) or grow products illegally on the land. In the midst of the investigation, however, SPJP realized this movement can’t just be about Occupation-related companies.

“We realized this is a structural problem in the investment practices of the College as a whole,” she said. “The ultimate idea is to open a discussion about how the College invests money and to create a space for students to approach the Investment Office and say, ‘Look, we have a problem with this company, this industry. We think that as an institution of Quaker roots, it’s unacceptable that we’d be profiting from this,’ and then get into some kind of discussion about making this into an established screen and adding certain criteria until changes are made.”
Both Dwider and Bernard-Herman think that it is unlike Swarthmore to have such a policy regarding its investment practices.

“It’s not unheard of or difficult to have the people that you are paying to invest your money screen [companies],” Dwider said.

It is possibly for this exact reason that Welsh questioned the students’ motives for wanting to know about the College’s investment in these companies.

“Any given day we could own any of these companies [on the list] and the next day we could not own them,” Welsh said. “So I don’t know that it’s relevant which ones we actually own but our policy itself.”

The VP for Finance asked the students present if they’d be willing to send a more detailed list with all of the practices the group found questionable for each of the 40 companies on the list, some of which are domestic, and others international. She plans on sharing these concerns with the Committee on Investor Responsibility, which meets in the spring.

According to Bernard-Herman, this meeting can result in a couple of things.

“If it turns out that we are invested in companies that profit from the Occupation, we could compel the college to find a shareholder resolution, asking those companies to stop contracting with Israeli operations in the West Bank and Gaza,” he said. “If that fails, or the resolution gets thrown out, then other options like a divestment campaign start to look more reasonable.”

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