Fri, 04 Oct 2013 17:18:00 CDT — by: Jordan Long, C'14, Sustainability Undergraduate Fellow
In June 2012, environmentalist Bill McKibben, a Sewanee honorary degree recipient, sent student activists into a flurry with the publication of an Op-Ed in Rollingstone in which he called students to adopt a new strategy to combat climate change: divestment. To the current generation of activists, this term was unfamiliar, however, to the previous generation of activists this term was familiar as the strategy adopted to use economic means to end apartheid in South Africa. Students across the country were invigorated by this rhetoric and by the symbolism inherent in using a business strategy to combat the behaviors of business.
This article was the first time many schools began thinking about the management of their institutional endowments, however, for Sewanee the issue of endowment management had been on the agenda before the Rollingstone article’s publication. In April of 2012, a group of students Seth Morris, Clesi Bennett, Wallis Ahern, Michael Grantz, and Jordan Long met to discuss responsible investment in a hollistic sense. There students had a desire not to see divestment, per se, but to see the University “putting their money where their mouth was so to speak.” These students viewed Sewanee as a place of ethics, a place where morality and honored governed their daily lives, it made sense to them that their investments act as a continuation of that ethic, particularly in a world where cash is the most powerful form of speech.
From these meetings and discussions, a new organization, the Sewanee Coalition for Responsible Investment was formed. The Sewanee Coalition for Responsible Investment organized itself along two lines; the activist oriented and the academic/policy oriented. Michael Grantz headed the activism side of things, organizing students around the issue, passing student resolutions and educating the student body on the important of divestment. The academic/policy side was, and remains, headed by Jordan Long, the organization's current president, who worked with economics department and the University’s investment committee to determine how heavily exposed Sewanee’s endowment was to investments of questionable ethical integrity, and what could be done to remove these investments and still maintain profits. Working within the institutional framework, Jordan and the SCRI were able to gain access to the endowment in a way no other college has, and as a result of this cooperation with the institution have been able to have more rational, frank conversations about the true meaning of responsible investment. After looking at the endowment, the organization began to ask themselves, “what does it mean to be responsible?”. It was clear that being a responsible steward of your finances was not as simple as merely liquidating all assets having to do with fossil fuels, it required a more proactive approach. However, this proactive approach required more knowledge, both of Sewanee’s endowment and of the approaches being taken by other institutions.
An early leader in radical approaches to environmentalism was the student activist group, Swarthmore Mountain Justice, a group organized against mountaintop removal mining.
It has been this proactive approach that the students have been pursuing this year. Working with the investment club, newly endowed with $250,000, the Sewanee Coalition for Responsible investment will be functioning as a watchdog of sorts, brining forth both stocks representing companies of excellent social and environmental repute and advising the organization against those companies which have extreme and often repeated offenses both in the human rights and environmental realms. The investment club will make its first investments at the end of October under the guidance of the Coalition for Responsible Investment and both organizations will be collaborating with the Babson Center, and the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability in drafting a formal investment policy for the University investment committee.