Investment chief responds to concerns, but SU senators remain unconvinced

| News Editor

Chief Investment Officer Kimberly Walker, right, speaking about the endowment on Wednesday. (Michelle Merlin | Student Life)

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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593555791 Jerome Bauer

    PS to my comment above: please see my favorite Student Life op-ed, written by next year’s editor, Kate Gaertner, a good choice, I think. “What Money Can Buy,” http://www.studlife.com/forum/2008/11/21/what-money-can-buy/

    My comment:: “Money can buy greenwash for a coal plant, redwash for a company town, and whitewash for a war. (And egg wash for an American apple pie; thank you, Jim Cooper!)”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593555791 Jerome Bauer

    Over the holiday break the University’s lawyers threatened to sue a website satirizing the so-called “Clean Coal Consortium,” most likely at the behest of the coal companies. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, though I am disappointed that the satirical website designer backed down. So much for free speech.

    We can take money from the coal companies and the government, including even the Defense Department and the CIA, as long as we are not perceived by anybody to have been co-opted. To avoid this perception, we must vigorously assert our independence. Our students’ lives may be in danger overseas if the University is perceived to be pushing a CIA agenda, because the CIA is perceived by many people in this world as a terrorist organization. The CIA folks I know are well aware of this, and understand the need for our governments to fund independent scholarship, and the necessity for independent scholars to dissociate themselves from any sort of government or industry agenda. I hope the coal companies, agribusiness, and the defense industries understand this as well.

    I too remain unconvinced of the imminence of an alien invasion or a supernova. I remain unconvinced of WashU’s pretense to be a world class University, having been associated with three world class universities already. This upstart school has potential, though. If it did not, I would walk away, and I would advise you all to do the same.

    Lecturer Dr. Jerome Bauer
    –National Defense Education Title IV Fellowship recipient (Hindi, Gujarati, though I and my cohort spent more time studying Sanskrit literature, courtesy of the US taxpayers)
    –American Institute of Indian Studies Dissertation Fellowship recipient, courtesy of the United States Government owned rupee fund
    –recipient of graduate degrees for the Universities of Chicago, California, and Pennsylvania
    –proud to have given ten years, so far, and at least 10,000 hours of sweat equity to Washington University, still an underrated midwestern treasure….

    Please see “Get Your Defense Department Tax Dollars’ Worth,” http://www.washucoop.com/node/452

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1078740083 Joseph Marcus

    As an SU Senator, I am a little confused…what are we not convinced of?

    I left the meeting with an overview of how the endowment has been invested and the philosophy that WashU uses in making those investments. I am convinced that this strategy works in making money that keeps us competitive with peer institutions. I am convinced that if students really want to rally behind the cause of creating general investing policies, it would be best to do so through WUIMC and the Board of Trustees rather than the CIO’s office. Finally, I left the meeting convinced that there is a difference in causing good and not causing harm while investing.

    I am not convinced of a lot of things: an alien invasion of campus, the sun going supernova within the year, etc. I am convinced that this presentation answered a lot of our concerns on the endowment and am surprised to hear/learn about how skeptical I am.

  • wow

    SU senators need to let this lady do her job, which is to grow the endowment. Shame on her for “giving money” to those evil coal companies who are hell bent on destroy the world. Buying shares of a company doesn’t give them more money, it gives whoever is selling you those shares the money. Honestly, student government needs to realize that they have little idea how this university is run and that they should leave things like this to the administration.