Not even a New York Times article could get the University to start listening

By Annabel Forward
Contributing Writer

In October of 2019, I contacted a New York Times reporter with an article pitch about our organization, the Socially Conscious Investment Club, also known as SoCo. The idea for pitching an article to the Times came after a meeting with high level administrators and the Board of Regents where we felt we were getting nothing done. Nobody was listening, and if they were, it was just as a courtesy.

We always strive to hold the University accountable, and going to the Times was another way for us to do so. After two months of back and forth communication, the reporter, Ron Lieber, came to campus for an interview. We sat in the duPont Library for over two hours sharing our story with Ron. 

Our club has a clear, two-part mission. Firstly, we advocate for transparency within endowment holdings, between stakeholders, and between endowment managers. When you come to Sewanee you sign a contract stating your commitment to the University and to maintain its values. To act with integrity, respect all ideas and voices, and be honest in all situations.

We are expected to hold ourselves and each other responsible for these standards in order to cultivate a community based on a shared value system. The management of the endowment is an extension of the University and all those who choose to associate themselves with it.

The Sustainability Master Plan authored by the university faculty and administrators in 2013 says that the endowment is, “a vehicle through which it can espouse and promote institutional values.” The way that we manage our endowment currently is a direct violation of such values. The University fails the entire community when it chooses to circumvent the guiding institutional principle when it comes to managing its money, thus undermining the core identity of the school.

Choosing to uphold the established community guidelines only when convenient is a direct insult to every individual who has signed the honor code. 

Our second goal is the socially responsible management of the endowment. Sewanee emphasizes how lucky we are to “dwell in unity” on our 13,000 acre domain. We are not respecting the land we are supposed to protect when we directly invest in businesses that hurt it. To claim environmental awareness and then profit from fossil fuels is hypocritical. There are other industries that we should not be profiting from that extend beyond just fossil fuels, such as child labor and private prisons, just to name a few.

For a University with such a strong moral code, we fail to exercise it when it comes to the endowment. The Episcopal Church has divested in some capacity, using its moral compass as the guiding reason. Why not Sewanee?

Since the Times article was published, there has been no administrative response to the University community as a whole.  The slow response is nothing out of the ordinary. Sewanee has a proven track record of feigning ignorance towards instances where institutional accountability is demanded.

By not making a public statement to the university, the University has said more than they ever would through a statement. We want a sustained and rigorous dialogue on the issues that we have brought up, and that the University has written in its guiding documents. We have spent two years working with the University, accepting every challenge with a polite yes and doing our best to match what we think they want from us. The time for us to be polite and courteous seems to be over. 

By not dignifying our article with a public response, they have made it very apparent that student voices never really mattered. By ignoring the issues we bring up, Sewanee continues its effort in staking a claim on the wrong side of history. We love Sewanee and we want what is best for it. Refusing to take students seriously is not what makes Sewanee great. It is our ability to have difficult conversations across all boundaries, respecting the ideas of all those who participate, that does. It is time for the administration to step up and take accountability for their actions. 

Edit: The original version of this article said that “Since the Times article was published, SoCo has not heard anything from the administration.” The authors of the article the University’s Office of Marketing and Communications agreed to change the wording to the more specific claim that “there has been no administrative response to the university community as a whole.” This change does not appear in the February 12, 2020 print edition of the Purple.”

Leave a Reply