Student hunger strike ends but issue won’t go away
Jessica Newman
May/June 2008

For the last year, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) has tried to reach out to the administration and UF’s Board of Directors regarding its policy for socially responsible investing only to be repeatedly ignored.

Socially responsible investing calls for the establishment of a transparency committee that will report to the board of trustees on the investments of the $1.2 billion endowment fund of UF to ensure that the university is not investing in corporations that are profiting from the War on Terror, environmental destruction, or human rights abuses.

Originally the campaign started as a push for the divestment in such socially irresponsible investments, meaning through a long and complicated process the university would withdraw its funds from companies it felt were ethically wrong.

But soon the movement realized a new goal - that of transparency. SDS felt it was important for students, alumni, faculty, investors , whoever to be aware of the corporations that their funds were supporting.

SDS met with UF’s President Bernie Machen and/or the board of directors on three different occasions to discuss their proposal for a transparency committee, each time being politely denied or pushed aside in some shape or form.

Initially President Machen supported SDS’s socially responsible investment policy. In a letter he wrote to the organization, he said he supported their ideas and would look into the matter further. But after he and the board of directors attempted to placate the students by enacting policies that would allow the board of directors to consider divesting in firms it considered capable of causing “substantial social injury.” He also added that the board was considering a policy used to oversee the Florida state pension plan, which bans investing in 57 companies considered socially irresponsible by state standards.

But he also added, “With regard to your specific proposals, I am not able to recommend them to the board of trustees. We believe the board of trustees’ newly adopted policy and our other considerations provide the necessary framework to invest in a socially responsible manner.”

But according to the students involved in SDS and those most closely aligned with the socially responsible investing campaign, these actions that were meant to appease the progressive types have nothing to do with their cause. The organization placed no faith in the board of directors or the administration in regards to investing in socially responsible companies. Also, the university’s endowment fund was made up of hedge funds and mutual funds, which were outside the realm of the policies the board enacted.

With no other place to turn, SDS gathered the appropriate amount of signatures to place the issue on the Spring 2008 student ballot as a referendum. With 81.5 percent of the students supporting the creation of a transparency committee, SDS felt victorious.

But as the semester was coming to a close, SDS realized nothing was going to be done to address the opinions of the masses. President Machen and the board of trustees had done nothing in response to the student vote.

So members of SDS decided the only thing left to do was go on a hunger strike. They felt the only way to make their voices heard and to gain the attention of the higher-ups was by starving themselves.

Students fasted from two to ten days in April in an attempt to be heard. Some drank fruit and vegetable juice, while others ingested only water for the duration of the strike.

In the end, their voices went unheard. As the semester ended, the Student Senate at UF held a meeting where it rejected SDS’s proposal for the creation of a transparency committee. 33 senators voted in favor of the bill that would establish such a committee, but 31 opposed the bill, meaning the proposal failed to get the two-thirds majority required to pass.

With many of the activists leaving Gainesville for the summer, no one knows what the next step will be. But one can be certain that the issue will not just disappear.

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