Oberlin Boycotts May Not Match Investments
Set foot on Oberlin’s campus and you may notice something missing — Coca-Cola products, ubiquitous elsewhere, have no presence here. This is no coincidence: In Sept. 2004 the College Purchasing Committee recommended that the college sever its relationship with Coca-Cola.
The committee was charged with looking into allegations that Coke turned a blind eye against and possibly conspired in the murder of trade unionists in its Colombian bottling plants. Research found that Coca-Cola had refused to cooperate with an independent investigation into its labor practices. The one successful investigation uncovered evidence of systematic violence and intimidation.
Thus, Oberlin set a precedent of boycotting the purchase of products made with business practices deemed morally unacceptable. But what of the companies in which the College chooses to invest?
Two of Oberlin’s main areas of financial investment are the employee pension plan and the endowment. The pension plan gives each eligible employee the option to enroll in a plan managed by TIAA-CREF which, according to Associate Vice President for Finance Mark Bates, is the number one investment company in America.
Once an employee decides to defer a portion of his or her paycheck into a TIAA-CREF account, he or she has total control over what type of companies they invest in through TIAA-CREF.
“When an employee joins the College and wants to participate in the plan, he or she ends up in a contract with TIAA-CREF directly,” said Bates. “We have no involvement in recommending to employees what they should invest in.”
But the college has a precedent of making a unilateral statement on what it sees as unethical investing by divesting wholly from certain companies. In the 1980s, the college divested from companies doing business in South Africa in response to that nation’s Apartheid government. Today, Oberlin is making an effort to divest from companies profiting from the genocide in Sudan, even though less than 1.7 percent of our investments are tied up in Sudan, and many of those are of a nature that makes it impossible for us to pull out of them.
The Investment Committee, the group of trustees and administrators that oversees investment of the school’s endowment, does not dictate which companies the school’s other investment managers buy stock in.
Said Marcia Miller, chief investment officer, “We put no restrictions on what type of investments our managers invest in other than the style.”
For example, a given investment manager is ordered to invest in small startups, but not to avoid Coke.
Miller sees no inherent contradiction in boycotting companies through sales but not through investment.
“Because we attract a very diverse student body and everyone has issues very near to their heart, if we put a list [of companies people want to divest from] we could end up excluding everything,” she said.
Besides, she explained, an endowment is a sought-after investor: companies want its business. So, what the college says has a lot of influence over the companies it invests in. According to Miller, one such company has already liquidated is assets in Sudan.
“If you own company stock then you have a say,” explained Vice President for Finance Ron Watts.
There’s another reason the Investment Committee traditionally does not take an ethical stand.
“There’s a lot of information that suggests maximizing your endowment to provide scholarships to let students go out into the world has a far greater impact [than divestment would],” said Miller.
However, last June the board of trustees gave President Dye the go-ahead to form a committee of faculty and staff to make recommendations similar to those made by the purchasing committee. She hopes this will get off the ground before the next all-board meeting this October.