Coalition wants UF to engage in socially responsible investing
Recently student activists with the UF Responsible Endowment Coalition (REC) have taken on an ambitious campaign to change the way UF handles its money. As a member of this diverse coalition, I was asked by The Iguana to contribute a short piece about our work.
The REC campaign always appealed to me because of its potential to bring together people from all sides of the political spectrum with its almost universal message. At UF the campaign was first hatched by a handful of students who wanted to identify university ties to war-profiteering companies. The most obvious place to begin the search was with UF's 1.2 billion dollar endowment.
We soon found out that UF has absolutely no transparency or accountability when it comes to its endowment, despite being a public university. This would seem to be in contradiction of Florida's Sunshine laws, but UF found some creative ways around these. You see, it's not a public university that's doing the investing; it's a private corporation created by the university that's investing the money. Actually, if you wanted to be technical, it's a private corporation (University of Florida Investment Corporation) created by a private corporation (UF Foundation) created by a public university that is investing what will always be public money.
Our initial position was that UF needs to fully open up its books to public scrutiny, but in hindsight this was a somewhat naïve stance to take. UF fears transparency for two reasons, one that's rather reasonable and another that's quite objectionable. The reasonable reason is that UF's endowment has shown such amazing results (22% growth last year) that full transparency might invite copy-cat investors, thereby watering down our success. The objectionable reason is that investment transparency invites advocacy groups seeking to ensure UF's money is not invested in such and such a way.
Of course, at a public university, discourse about the role of the university in society (including the principles guiding its investments) is a healthy practice. But we still had to appease their first fear. Our solution turned out to be the exact same model used by several prestigious private universities with endowments several times our size: we called for the creation of an independent committee of student, faculty, and alumni representatives to advise UF's Board of Trustees on the socially responsible investment of UF's endowment.
This elected committee would have full transparency, but would be obligated not to disclose any trade secretes. Their meetings would be open to the public, and their recommendations to the Board (and Board's responses) would be in the public domain. Additionally, the public would have full retroactive transparency, in that the entirety of the previous year's holdings would be made available to anyone curious enough to ask for them.
We collected signatures and eventually got a referendum question on the last student government election ballot. In the election, 81% of voters indicated their support for the creation of our proposed advisory committee. And why shouldn't they? With UF positioning itself as a leader in the area of sustainability, with our incredibly inclusive non-discrimination clauses, and with a mission of "operating to promote the public good," there is a lot of room for us to examine how our investments live up to these values.
Contact UF Responsible Endowment Coalition at
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