Letter to the editor: University should live up to its own mission statement

To the Trail:

The mission statement of the University of Puget Sound reads as follows:

“University of Puget Sound is an independent predominantly residential undergraduate liberal arts college with selected graduate programs building effectively on a liberal arts foundation. The university, as a community of learning, maintains a strong commitment to teaching excellence, scholarly engagement, and fruitful student-faculty interaction.

The mission of the university is to develop in its students capacities for critical analysis, aesthetic appreciation, sound judgment, and apt expression that will sustain a lifetime of intellectual curiosity, active inquiry, and reasoned independence. A Puget Sound education, both academic and co-curricular, encourages a rich knowledge of self and others; an appreciation of commonality and difference; the full, open, and civil discussion of ideas; thoughtful moral discourse; and the integration of learning, preparing the university’s graduates to meet the highest tests of democratic citizenship.

Such an education seeks to liberate each person’s fullest intellectual and human potential to assist in the unfolding of creative and useful lives.”

The university’s mission statement can provide a framework for decision making when the institution is faced with new (or renewed) questions of policy, and the particular question I’ve got in mind is one I know a lot of you have got in mind, too, since it’s recently been buzzing around campus at increasing decibel levels: Ought the university to divest from environmentally irresponsible companies?

I believe, and I’m willing to bet many of you believe, and I’m even willing to bet many members of the board of trustees believe, that taking care of the environment is the moral thing to do, for whichever reason strikes you at the moment: we owe it to ourselves to live on a planet with pretty, functioning ecosystems, we owe it to future humans to keep that planet pretty and functioning with plenty of self-renewing resources to offer, we owe it to other species to make room for them to live their lives the way they have for eons, etc., etc. These are moral obligations that many of us recognize as individuals.

But why does this moral obligation affect Puget Sound as an institution? Because the university’s mission statement claims to support students in their exploration of moral decisions and their application of those decisions to their lives.

The university’s liberal arts curriculum legitimizes a concern for even the less functional aspects of life, that is, an exercise of “aesthetic appreciation,” of things that enrich our lives even if their utilitarian value is difficult to pin down.

In addition to an aesthetically oriented discussion of what is pleasurable, the school professes a desire to support students in a “thoughtful moral discourse,” i.e., a discovery of what is right. These discussions are not only to occur in “academic,” but also “cocurricular” life, suggesting an exploration of how to apply these aesthetic and moral values to the way we live our lives outside of class, not just as individuals, but together, as a campus.

Only by learning how to apply these values in our community here, and doing so in a vocal, public way that engages students with the operations of university administration, will we prepare ourselves for the lifelong task of applying these values in our professional, familial, municipal, and political lives after graduation, which is the essence of “democratic citizenship.”

It is in the spirit of understanding ourselves and our values, and living up to those values more fully, that I believe the university must reevaluate its investment practices. By investing in the market, the institution is lending its assets, its power, and its approval to the companies whose stock it purchases.

That the university currently professes not to know where its money is invested means it does not know to whom it is lending authority in the capitalist market, blindly casting its ballot in a global election in which stocks are votes. Students who are “intellectually curious” enough to launch an “active inquiry” into the school’s investments seek to grant the institution the opportunity to have a “full, open, and civil discussion” about where these votes are, align them with the school’s values, and achieve “reasoned independence” from external firms that give no consideration to those goals of the university that extend beyond the financial. And the university must have such goals, as its mission statement professes, for it is not a for-profit company but an academic establishment that exists for the multifaceted enrichment of its students.

Exposure and examination of where the university’s investments currently lie, and comparison and realignment of those investments with the shared values of the campus community is a pressing opportunity to engage students in the intellectual and ethical explorations that are the mission of Puget Sound.


Emily Smaldone