Five Middlebury College students, masquerading as the college’s communications office, distributed a counterfeit press release last Friday, announcing that Middlebury was “fully divesting its endowment from war” in honor of the Dalai Lama’s visit to campus. Though the content of the release was false, it has incited plenty of media attention — its authors have already appeared on WDEV and VPR.
Molly Stuart, a co-author of the release, described their efforts as a “continuation of acts of resistance during apartheid,” referring to the decision made by a string of higher education institutions — Middlebury included — to divest from South Africa in protest of the regime. The problem this time around is that a third party entity, Investure, now manages Middlebury’s endowment through a pooled fund, and it doesn’t disclose its portfolio.
The students say they are virtually certain that Investure has investments in military contractors, arms manufacturers, and fossil fuel companies. During a public forum held last spring to discuss the school’s investment policy, Barrett Smith, a Middlebury student who had no involvement with the fake press release, stood up and asked an Investure representative whether these type of companies were included in their portfolio.
Smith said the answer was clear. “He basically said yes, explaining that it was the nature of the beast.”
In a statement issued four days after the initial press release, the students clarified it was a hoax, but they maintained their conviction that Middlebury has ethically questionable investments. “Given that these [arms manufactures, military contractors and fossil fuel companies] are among the most profitable industries in existence, it is safe to say that they are included in our portfolio … Our intent was to bring attention to the unsettling reality that Middlebury has millions of dollars invested in industries of violence.”
Middlebury’s Office of Public Affairs issued a release that did not directly address the students’ claim but state that the college has yet to determine whether it will enact disciplinary measures against the student but says it plans to “continue fostering open, well-informed discussions on this topic…”
The absence of screening mechanisms amongst these third party endowment managers is rankling students on campuses across the county. Many higher education institutions handle their endowments through third party fund managers— Investure itself manages the endowments of Dickinson College, Trinity College, Smith College, and the University of Tulsa.
The authors of the bogus press release acted independently of any formal student organization, but they aren’t the only on-campus initiative advocating for socially responsible investments. In 2010, a student group called Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) succeeded in apportioning $4 million of Middlebury’s endowment to “sustainable and socially responsible companies.” Bill McKibben, a Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury, has also launched a national movement, through his organizing 350.org, to encourage colleges to divest from fossil fuel companies.
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Students like Stuart aren’t satisfied with the scale of this approach, given that Middlebury’s endowment is valued at approximately $881 million, as of June 2012. The vast majority — $864 million — is held in a pooled fund managed by Investure.
“Because our endowment is almost a billion dollars, we really see as it an important step to put in place screens to make sure we are not putting our money into Halliburton or Blackwater,” Stuart said.