Investment chief responds to concerns, but SU senators remain unconvinced
Kimberly Walker, Washington University’s chief investment officer, sought on Wednesday night to allay students’ concerns over how the school invests the endowment, but Student Union senators left the meeting with much of the same skepticism.
The room was filled with members of Washington University Students for Endowment Transparency (WUSET) and various others.
Students were most concerned about investing in socially responsible funds, and more specifically, not investing in harmful ones.
Walker’s presentation and question period responded to many student concerns, letting students know how the endowment had suffered and how the University’s endowment compared to those of other universities.
“The board is there to set the strategic direction of the endowment,” Walker said. She acknowledged that the main focus of the endowment is making a profit.
Students, however, saw this attitude as being at odds with the University’s mission statement, namely “to prepare students with the attitudes, skills and habits of lifelong learning and with leadership skills, enabling them to be useful members of a global society.”
Walker noted that investment doesn’t necessarily need to conflict with the mission statement.
“[They] don’t have to be in conflict, but when they are in conflict we would lean toward generating investment returns,” Walker said.
Because some students feel as though there is no transparency or accountability, there is a fear that Washington University Investment Managing Company (WUIMC) is giving money to companies that are questionable, including coal companies.
With the formation of WUSET, the University’s board has agreed to create a Web site, which is not yet up. It is unclear what information it will have.
“Students need to keep putting pressure on [Walker] until we can actually see the personal portfolio of the WUIMC green firms or whatever,” said senior Todd Zimmer, a member of WUSET. “We can’t see what stocks she’s referring to, we can’t see what contacts are being made, we can’t see how much money’s being made, and we can’t see explicitly what they are, so we’re still taking everything Kim [Walker] says at face value.”
WUSET would like to see the University implement Socially Responsible Investment (SRI), which aligns investments with mission statements and environmentally friendly and socially responsible initiatives. The group would also like a student advisory committee to be involved with the board and make suggestions.
Peer institutions of the University, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University, have implemented SRIs. WUIMC is looking into how these other universities use SRI.
Walker’s news wasn’t entirely what WUSET wanted to hear.
“I think she was skeptical of [eco-friendly funds], and their true potential is greater than what the endowment fund is valuing them at,” said junior Alex Christensen, an SU senator. “I think students would like to see Wash. U. put its sustainability mission into its endowment as well.”
Others think that the financial responsibilities are enough.
“I think that as long as the fiduciary responsibilities are being met, the most important thing to me as a student is that we have the money to do really good research to enable the students to do the things we want them to do, like start green action groups on campus and work with the community,” said Kirsten Miller, a business school senator.
Students were glad that Walker was straightforward with them and answered their questions.
“It seemed like the conversation was pretty positive both ways,” said freshman Mamatha Challa, an SU senator. “I think she definitely answered the questions that I felt like a lot of students had, even in her presentation.”
SU hopes to set up a liaison with WUIMC.