Occupy Vanderbilt Wants Answers from Administration

April 9, 2012
Source
Orbis

Occupy Vanderbilt has sprung up seemingly from no-where. But there’s a story to how those students got angry and decided to take a stand. The students’ seven months of investigation into Vanderbilt’s investment with EMVest, along with years of investigation into Vanderbilt’s investments in HEI Hotels & Resorts, play a large role in that.

Here’s a recap. In June 2011, the Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank that studies various facets of the economy in Africa—land rights, food, poverty, foreign aid and investment, for example—found a huge number of companies to be engaging in unethical practices in the African continent.

The unethical practices, as laid out by the Oakland Institute researchers, derives from these companies abusing African land and African peoples for the betterment of these foreign investment companies. EmVest, one of these investment firms, says that it is collecting unused, but arable land which has been “lying fallow,” to farm and return a very quick profit in Mozambique, expecting and hoping for a large increase in land prices because of speculation – essentially rapid and unhindered globalization.

Researchers found that villagers and village leaders where EmVest took root tell a different story: one where the company came in, coerced them by co-opting the government’s power and corruption into signing documents they didn’t understand and they now realize were extremely harmful to the local population. That land is now being used by EmVest for “industrial” farming. The jobs and economy they claimed would be created in the process have actually shrunk job opportunity for local people who can no longer farm their own land to provide for their families, because of the super-efficient, but ultimately environmentally unsustainable, unlimited irrigation and fertilization practices.

HEI Hotels and Resorts is another company in which Vanderbilt invests. It operates in the US and has been found liable for multiple state labor violations and has settled federal labor violations. Their business plan is acquiring hotels, “slimlining operations,” and then reselling the hotels in under a decade. HEI practices shrink workforce, dramatically increasing workload on each worker causing increased injury rates, decrease pay, and intimidate workers so that they are too scared to organize themselves and unable to protect themselves against many unfair labor practices. This, all in the name of “decreasing labor costs.”

Vanderbilt isn’t the only big name being accosted for being involved with these companies. Vanderbilt administrators can finally be proud to be mentioned in the same breath with fellow investor, Harvard University, which is also invested in both of these companies.

Students at Harvard just held their own Occupy campaign. You might even say that Occupy Vanderbilt is the “Occupy Harvard of the south.” While they led it without a narrow list of demands, at the top of their discussions and reasons for setting up a tent city in the Harvard Yard were workers rights, labor rights especially relating to Harvard’s investment in HEI, and this ongoing mistreatment of African landowners through Harvard’s investment in EMVest.

This movement, spearheaded by a core group of only a dozen or so students, was a success. In December 2011, Katie Lapp, Harvard Executive Vice President, issued a statement regarding HEI Hotels and Resorts saying that when the time came to reconsider the university’s investment, a process repeated every few years, they would take into account its compliance with industry standards and regulations, namely its frequent violation of labor rights.

In light of those successes Occupy Vanderbilt is looking to confront Vanderbilt administrators in a way that can’t be ignored.

Students working on The Responsible Endowment Campaign (REC) at Vanderbilt have been demonstrating against Vanderbilt’s investment practices and structure, specific to its involvement with EmVest and HEI, for months. After enough pressure mounted on top administrators, Dr. David Weintraub, Chair of the Faculty Senate and Professor of Astronomy in the Department of Arts & Sciences, reported that an investigation had been conducted by three members of the Senate and had found nothing wrong with investment practices.

The Senate did not release the actual report, but Dr. Weintraub made an interperative summary in his email, which stated that “members are satisfied that Vice Chancellor Wright and his team follow an appropriate and thorough due diligence in assessing investments on behalf of Vanderbilt University.”

At this point, there seem to be some politics and possible misconstrual going on. In the email summary sent out by Dr. Weintraub regarding the investment, he writes, “In summary, these investments [in EMVest] appear to be good for both Vanderbilt University and for the people in Africa most directly affected by these investments.  The Senate Executive Committee, speaking for the Senate, has now expressed its support of the Administration with regard to our investments in Emergent Asset Management.”

However when an organizer for REC met with Dr. Daniel Beauchamp, chair of a committee within the senate, he seemed to believe that Weintraub did not say that “the investment was good for the university and ‘the people in Africa,’” as was stated in the released email.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and there are infinite lines of bureaucracy to tell us there’s really no smell at all.

Zach Blume, one of the chief organizers for both REC and Occupy Vanderbilt, said in response “The only legitimate thing about the quote ‘investigation’ was that it shows us that the Senate thinks that the investment team shouldn’t be able to do whatever it wants with impunity, something everyone appears to generally agree on. Therefore it seems sensible to say we need a permanent reviewing body which isn’t so ad-hoc like this, and doesn’t require us to have rare insider information delivered to us to combat unethical investments.“

That’s not the end of the protests, though. Even the Hustler Editorial Board, which is normally fairly conservative about the issues it takes a stance on, published a response that was very much in line with the REC’s demands.

“The Hustler believes that an informed community is necessary to ensure that those who control Vanderbilt’s purse strings adhere to this standard. As such, the lack of transparency surrounding the African land grab issue is unacceptable. Our administrators owe it to the student body to be more open about the University’s investment with Emergent, as well as Vanderbilt’s future business dealings and investments.”

That was all back in November. So why, in March, are students still frustrated with Vanderbilt’s seeming refusal to become transparent over an issue that should not have persisted so long?

As an attempt to make this fight more visible, REC hosted an unauthorized Teach-In at Kirkland Hall, in which around fifty students gathered to discuss the problems at hand along with four faculty.

As expressed by Lucius Outlaw, a scholar in the Philosophy Department on Africana philosophy, “I’m less concerned about the issue than about how we deal with such issues. This will not be the only such issue!”
The problem is not just the investment in Africa by itself, while it is troublesome. It’s Vanderbilt’s lack of transparency and accountability.

The problem can also be traced to the cultural tendency to trust an American university’s actions. Or, at least, to not challenge them. In this spotty economic climate, employees are disinclined to demand too much of an administration that could just as easily hire someone else. Alumni are largely engaged in their own lives, far from their Alma Mater. Students, too, are busy with school and not engaged in bureaucratic politics here in Nashville that happen to be threatening the rights of fellow humans a continent away.

“Most are too afraid to even speak up and say [universities are] doing anything about it even if they want to, because they’re afraid it’ll just attract more attention to the fact that our schools hold a collective $350 billion and nobody knows where any of it is going,” said an Oakland Institute article entited “University Land Grabs in Africa and Student Activism.”

In the light of this bureaucratic burrowing, the Responsible Endowment Campaign, and now Occupy Vanderbilt, hope to attract the attention of students and media to bring Vanderbilt to a level of accountability that’s in line with its academic prestige and reputation.

Visit occupyvanderbilt.org to see all the work that Occupy Vanderbilt is pulling together.