Letter to the editor: Divestment conversation must continue

To The
, in response to the letter published in the December 5, 2014 issue:


In a letter published recently in the Trail, a reader raised objections to the divestment campaign currently underway within the student body. There are many critiques I could make of their arguments, such as the claims about how divestment would or would not affect the companies’ behavior, whether the companies’ behavior is in fact bad or not, or whether it is hypocritical to fight for divestment when oil remains a major part of our collective consumptive economy.

I will leave those issues to be addressed by others however, and instead will focus on two very specific claims the author made about moral behavior.

The first, that to divest is to forcefully impose one view of social responsibility on the rest of the student body, and the second, that releasing holdings in oil and gas companies is morally irresponsible, because the purpose of the endowment is first and foremost to raise money for scholarships and other programs. Both of these claims are incorrect.

It is true that to divest is to impose a view of social responsibility. To not divest however, is just as equally an imposition. What makes innaction a better imposition than action? Large organizations, such as governments, companies, and universities, must always make difficult moral decisions.

Not every member of that organization will have identical views on what the “right” thing to do is.

And yet, the decisions must be made, and some will not agree with those decisions. How then, do large organizations make decisions? It is usually done through some form of democratic process.

This may be an extremely expansive process including every single member, or it may be an extremely restrictive process involving only a small board or cabinet.

The democratic process is almost never consensus based, it is rather based on persuasive reasoning and a majority decision. This means that some people will be unhappy and feel an imposition, but it does not mean that action of any kind can not be taken.

The fact that divestment imposes a decision on those who may not agree with it is not in itself an argument against divestment. It is not the imposition of a decision which makes it acceptable or not, it is the impact of that decision itself.

This brings me to the second moral claim, that it is irresponsible to divest, because the purpose of an endowment fund is to raise money for scholarships, among other things. This assumes that divesting will significantly decrease revenue. There is no evidence to support that this is necessarily the case.

Investment which takes into account the social and environmental practices of companies has been shown to do no better or worse than an uncritical investing strategy, and SRI programs are now offered by almost every major financial institution, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo, as well as many specialized SRI firms.

What’s more, the endowment fund is just as much a legitimate part of the University’s institutional behavior as any other action it takes. To claim that any means justifies the ends, so long as an education is provided, is a simple fallacy.

The University should, and in fact must, consider the justness and responsibility of its actions, all of its actions, as it continues to meet its goals of providing a high quality education for its students. A serious critique of our investing decisions is a critical part of this consideration.

There are many legitimate reasons why an institution could choose not to divest. The moral legitimacy of divestment efforts, however, is not a valid reason. Socially responsible investment, and the divestment campaigns which hope to achieve it, accomplish the moral imperatives of endowments, which are essentially charity funds.

It also is in fact moral to make a decision on tough questions. The fact that some may disagree with the decision does not mean the decision can not be made.

Given these facts, the community should continue its conversation about SRI and divestment, and ultimately come to a well informed decision on what the University should do.

Ultimately, the University may decide not to divest. But there is no reason to shut the conversation down before it has begun.




Eric Nathanson

Class of 2016