Around 50 students gathered in Wilson Hall Friday afternoon to learn more about issues of responsible investment of university endowments at a symposium put on by the Vanderbilt Students of Nonviolence.
The three guest speakers were Jeff Furman, the chair of Ben & Jerry’s corporate board, Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute which broke the story about Vanderbilt’s investments in African “land grabs,” and Dan Apfel, the executive director of the Responsible Endowments Coalition.
The focus of the symposium was on the farm in Mutuba, Mozambique that Vanderbilt is invested in through EmVest, a British corporation that controls over 100,000 hectares of land throughout Africa. However, all the speakers emphasized the need to take a wider view of the issue.
“This is not a 2012 issue, or even a 2000s issue,” said senior Ari Schwartz, who introduced the featured speakers.
Before the African land investment, Vanderbilt was criticized in the late 1980s for investments in companies that supported South Africa’s apartheid regime, and more recently Vanderbilt has also come under fire for its continuing investment in HEI Hotel Management, a company accused of unfair and abusive labor practices.
Furman especially focused on the need for a change in the way institutions and corporations invest. He criticized what he called “the myth of expertise,” the idea that the way corporations and investments are managed currently is the only way to do things.
He cited Ben & Jerry’s commitment to paying all its workers a living wage and its movement to buying 100 percent fair-trade ingredients as examples of how a corporation can operate contrary to the status quo and still be profitable.
Moving on to the land grab issue, Mittal described how she got her information on the land grab and Vanderbilt’s involvement in it. Specifically, she denied accusations that she misrepresented herself in order to get her information.
“I was always myself,” Mittal said. She went on to state that her position with the Oakland Institute was made clear in conversations with both EmVest and Vanderbilt.
Mittal was most critical of Vanderbilt vice chancellor for investments Matthew Wright. She claimed he neglected to consider the social or ethical consequences of the Mutuba investment.
“Socially responsible investments are not part of our criteria,” were Wright’s words according to Mittal.
Apfel, the final speaker, argued that social responsibility should be a driving force behind university investments.
“How can we proactively think about having a positive impact when we use our money?” Apfel asked.
All the speakers advocated for guidelines and committees for responsible investment like those that exist at Yale and other institutions.