One Student’s View of the Endowment Issue

By Guest Contributor

It is because I believe in Middlebury College’s ability to educate passionate and critical thinkers that I am extremely disconcerted by the fraudulent press release sent out by a group of students on Friday, Oct 12. First and foremost, it worries me that Middlebury students who are champions of social justice think that a lie is an appropriate conversation starter for a deeply complex issue. Second, there are many more facets to this situation than the email and subsequent statement seem to acknowledge. On principle, I am in agreement with those who see a troubling contradiction between inviting the Dalai Lama to speak at Middlebury and allegedly investing our endowment money in companies that promote morally questionable enterprises. However, though the intentions of the letter were honorable in that it raised awareness of an important concern for our community, it served mostly to oversimplify an issue that cannot afford to be pared down to a simple “us and them” scenario.

First, as the letter-writers concede, we are not entirely sure where the endowment is invested and in what capacity. At the endowment panel last spring, sponsored by the SRI club, the audience was informed that Investure has legal agreements with the companies with which they invest that obligates them to not divulge their business agreement without the express consent of said companies. I think that information should be available, so I agree with the press release senders in that there should be more endowment transparency. But the implication in sending the press release is that those who sent it know that the endowment is invested in companies that are involved in fossil fuels and weapons manufacturing — and that we are invested in a large capacity. Making such a statement without concrete factual evidence (even if we have very, very good reason to believe this is true) is counter-intuitive: it makes us accusers rather than allies in a battle that the entire community should be fighting together. This is not a war between students and the administration — we all want to see our endowment invested in morally and environmentally sustainable enterprises. If these requests for transparency are made in a diplomatic and practical manner, I for one am positive the administration will react favorably.

However, though I agree with having more endowment transparency, this is not the only issue the letter brought up. In fact, I think that particular issue is one that no one can dispute with great success: the lack of transparency in our endowment should (and, I wager, will) be resolved quickly if pursued in a manner agreeable to the wider community. I think the more interesting question here is what it means to “invest in war,” and whether we can afford the quality of the education we enjoy at Middlebury if we were not to do so.

But it is a question raised prematurely. There are several issues here we need to engage as a community, but we can’t engage them without the proper information. First, and most importantly, where do we “draw the line,” so to speak? This line is different from person to person. One student may be comfortable investing in, say McDonald’s, and another may not. In order to even begin looking at how we would like to alter our investments — assuming that those investments will become transparent in the future — we would have to come to an agreement as a community about which investments we would consider ethical. Second, if we agree that we do not want to, as the letter writers put it, “invest in war,” what precisely is it that we consider unconscionable? Investing in weapons manufacturers directly? Investing in steel manufacturers whose product, in part, is used for weapons? Investing in companies that use fossil fuels for their production? What makes “war” specifically heinous? What about alcohol? Tobacco? The letter-writers imply that these questions precede the transparency of the endowment — they don’t. We have to know what we are invested in before we start asking these questions. Otherwise, we’re grasping at straws.

The Dalai Lama expressed the hope that the 21st century would be a century of peace. Peace will not be achieved by fraudulent documents, accusatory remarks and hasty assumptions. Peace will be achieved by knowing what we must do, as well as by knowing how far we still have to go. This is a nuanced issue, and as a community we need to treat it with the delicacy and maturity it merits.

Written by RACHEL DICKER ’14 of Great Neck, N.Y.