College considers socially responsible investing

Ellen Ivens-Duran

In response to student pressure, Whitman’s administration announced the formation of the Divestment Policy Working Group via email on Tuesday. The group is tasked with evaluating if Whitman should implement a framework to guide the Board of Trustees’ response to requests for divestment, and what that framework might look like.

The group is composed of five members and will be chaired by Nancy Serrurier, who is the Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees. Other members include student representative Arthur Shemitz, Vice-President of the Associated Students of Whitman College, Overseer and Investment Committee Member Rob Hinnen, Treasurer Peter Harvey and Professor of Economics Denise Hazlett.

Junior Dani Hupper, who was a leader in the call for an ethical investment framework last semester, is skeptical about the composition of the committee. Hupper was recommended as the student representative to the committee, but was not selected for the position. At this point, the endowment is managed by the Board of Trustees in order to guarantee the financial well-being of the college in perpetuity, and ethical concerns are not formally considered.

“The committee is heavily weighted towards those with an economic background and while having an…econ background is incredibly, incredibly important when considering investments and social responsibility, there also must be people who bring knowledge and experience with the social justice perspective,” Hupper said. “If I were the person who was creating this committee…I would have equally weighted social justice with investment experience.”

Arthur Shemitz, the student representative on the committee, takes the ethical charge seriously. Due to a history of negotiating student interests and the college’s ideals through involvement with ASWC, Shemitz feels up to the challenge of participating in this process.

“I think that I was initially kind of unsure about being on this committee because I don’t have a real background in divestment claims, but I think that what is really at the heart of this committee … is the ethical component,” says Shemitz, “and … I bring a history of thinking about the values of the college and thinking about how those apply to both what we do here but also more importantly to the world around us.”

Chair Nancy Serrurier is interested in exploring the nuances of investment possibilities. Due to the relatively small size of Whitman’s endowment, getting creative about how to interact with unethical investments.

“It’s kind of complex and it’s not the same as owning Exxon, in the case of fossil fuel divestment, and saying, ‘We’re going to sell it,’ and we don’t care if we lose money today and someone else buys it tomorrow and makes a great killing on it,” says Serrurier, “It doesn’t work that way. We don’t own Exxon. We don’t own those kind of shares.”

Committee members are quick to clarify that fossil fuel divestment is not the only issue on the table. In the copy of the group’s charge that was sent to the student body, there is language about the framework being considered on a philosophical level, rather than engaging with specific requests that are currently circulating on campus.

“Here, fossil fuel divestment is what we associate that word with, but a lot of other schools you hear divestment from Israel and divestment from private prisons. And so, while obviously this is relevant to divestment from fossil fuels, it’s about something that’s bigger than that,” says Shemitz.

Ultimately, the college’s choice to move forward with this request has been an exciting victory for those concerned about what the College is doing with student tuition money and the returns on it.

“I’m very, very pleased by how fast this project got off the ground. Because there are lots of things that the college has to do and this has a lot of stakeholders and a lot of moving parts. It’s wonderful that this kind of thing could have a turnover of around three or four months,” says Hupper.

This is, however, just the beginning. Although the group is hopeful about having a framework to present to the Board at their April meeting, there is a long way to go.

“I don’t expect this to be the end of it. We are kicking off a robust discussion with recommendations about what a framework might look like,” says Serrurier.

Read more about the conversation around an ethical investment framework here.