Sal Spada (C’21) and Elizabeth Johnson (C’22) lead a SoCo meeting. Photo by Rob Mohr (C’21).
By Charlotte Suttee
Since the New York Times article featuring the Socially Conscious Investment Club’s (SoCo) call for endowment transparency, there has been no official public statement from the University. Established in 2015, SoCo has been working with the administration to promote socially responsible investment within its 400 million dollar endowment, and endowment transparency is necessary to keep the University accountable.
Co-Directors of SoCo, Sal Spada (C’21) and Elizabeth Johnson (C’22) have been granted a meeting with the Regents’ Investment Management Committee (IMC), in April. “The University’s process is that conversations about endowment-related matters always begin with the IMC,” said Laurie Saxton, director of news and public relations.
Spada expressed his dissatisfaction with these “backdoor conversations” to the audience of the SoCo Recap, hosted by the Community Engagement House on February 12. “We have been in contact with these regents, but it’s not how a University conversation should be going,” said Spada. “A conversation that really represents institutional values should be going on at the university-wide level.”
Spada stressed that conversation needs to happen in public forums with the highest levels of authority present, like the Vice-Chancellor, for one. “The administration has responded to us to some extent,” said Spada, “but with what really only feels like rebuttals and technicalities that demean the broader dialogue that we are getting at, rather than enhancing it. We want to move away from all of these major university decisions being decided behind closed doors, and moving these administrative processes out into the open.”
Johnson said she is “thankful that we are even able to have this conversation with the administration at all. This dialogue we have with them is more than in years prior, and that is something I think should be recognized.”
On February 12, Vice-Chancellor McCardell sent an email to the student body about the latest “substantive and productive” Board of Regents meeting. “A full summary of the meeting will be forthcoming,” McCardell said. While he announced new renovation projects, there was no mention of SoCo in the email.
The following day, February 13, was Fossil Fuel Divestment Day. SoCo asked students to email administrators (using a provided template) that demonstrates their support for SoCo and requests an official statement by the University.
“Vice-Chancellor McCardell received almost identical messages from about 40 individual students,” said Saxton. “He invited each of them to schedule a meeting with him to discuss their concerns, and six students accepted his invitation.”
“We believe it is problematic to invite a student to a one on one meeting with the VC to discuss something that should be discussed campus-wide, in a healthy, open-minded dialogue,” said Spada. “Not behind the closed doors of McCardell’s office.”
“In a lot of universities, the administration and board of trustees really do listen to the students,” said Spada, “because what we want is reflective of the times.” Divesting in fossil fuels will look good to a generation that cares about sustainability; it will look good to the pool of potential undergrads.
Not only does SoCo encourage sustainable practices because they believe it is morally right, especially for an Episcopal institution, but because “[SoCo] is keeping the university accountable to itself,” said Spada.
The basis for their accountability argument relies on the 2013 Master Sustainability plan, from which SoCo representative Wilder McCoy (C’20) quotes: ‘‘The way an institution manages its endowment is a vehicle through which we can impose and promote institutional values. We seek to engage in a university-wide discussion to uphold the institutional values and how investment strategies may be rethought and redirected in the future with a focus on sustainability.”
Sewanee published this document on the Provost page of the University website. “And a lot of faculty members who still work here signed that document,” said Johnson.
In 2016, Sewanee signed another critical document, but one that may be crippling the agenda of the Master Sustainability Plan: a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) to Edgehill, the company that manages Sewanee’s endowment. “[The NDA] puts some level of restrictions on Sewanee’s Board of Regents and administrators about how much they’re allowed to know and talk about the structure of our endowment,” said Spada.
McCoy considered the University’s incentives for keeping investments private: “Equity is intellectual property, so they are worried other [investors] will exactly match that.” The nondisclosure, however, is a big legal block to knowing whether Sewanee is being socially and environmentally responsible with its money.
“Learning about how long [the NDA] is in place for,” said Spada, “and exactly what it covers is information we wouldn’t be able to know unless we saw the contract Sewanee signed with Edgehill… and we’re not sure if we’d even be allowed to see.”
What we know about Sewanee’s investment portfolio is that it “seeks to provide strong financial support for current essentials like financial aid and faculty salaries (through spending a portion of the earnings),” said Saxton, “and seeks long-term gains that will sustain that support going forward.”
Until students are given more information, McCoy seizes every opportunity to talk to administrators. “I sign up for every Chen Hall meeting,” said McCoy, “and always try to sit at McCardell’s table and ask him about socially responsible investment, having the conversation. And you can do this with your faculty. Or a wealthy alumni. Deans. Those conversations eventually trickle up.”
“It is important for the administration to see that this is not just a group of 10 or 12 students,” said Johnson.