Opinion Submission: Chancellor Martin and the endowment team display contempt for our community and for human life

| First year Ph.D. student in English and American Literature

On March 19, the Student Union (SU) overwhelmingly passed a resolution “calling on Washington University to divest from and cut professional ties with Boeing.” This call was made in light of Boeing’s status as a major weapons supplier for the Israeli government’s ongoing assault on Gaza, which has resulted in 34,000 dead Palestinians, including more than 14,000 dead children.

A clear majority of the students who spoke before the vote were in favor of its passing. Among them were multiple affiliates of the group Jewish Students for Palestine (JSP).

The vote was over a month ago. Neither the University itself nor the body responsible for the endowment, the Washington University Investment Management Company (WUIMC), have responded to these representatives of the student body. 

In the spirit of transparency and respect for the concerns of its students, the University owes SU an explanation of its apparent decision not to divest from Boeing. 

If the University conveys the message that it does not care what SU thinks, then it is hardly surprising when some students adopt disruptive — though crucially still peaceful — means of communicating their views. In light of its lack of explanation, the University should also rescind student suspensions and any faculty penalties pertaining to recent peaceful demonstrations on campus.

When the University’s statement explaining its ties to Boeing is released, it ought to demonstrate greater transparency and respect than was displayed by Chancellor Andrew Martin during his March 5 interview with StudLife (two weeks before the SU vote calling for divestment). Chancellor Martin’s response to a pair of questions about Boeing during that interview amounted — in its entirety — to a single word. Specifically, the word “no” was Chancellor Martin’s full answer to both Boeing-related questions. Our community deserves a fuller rationale. 

We all also deserve greater clarity about the investment principles of the endowment. The WUIMC’s Fiscal Year 2022–23 annual report on the endowment pool includes a “Statement of Investment Principles.” This statement is a good start, but it raises several questions. 

The first stated principle highlights the WUIMC’s fiduciary responsibility to “mak[e] decisions that are financially, ethically, and legally sound.” The second principle (“Be Ethical Stewards”) states that the “WUIMC does not seek to profit from the violation of basic human rights and dignity.”

Questions arise at this juncture. Questions like: with an $11.5 billion endowment, surely the WUIMC can afford better housing options for itself than the rock it appears to be living under? 

It would take a year’s worth of StudLife column space to reproduce the litany of “basic human rights” violations committed by the Boeing-supplied Israeli military, as documented by respected human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International. This information is widely available, and my examples will necessarily be brief.

The three most recent HRW reports on Israel/Palestine document “rising settler violence” in the West Bank, “Israel’s imposed starvation” in Gaza, and an Israeli strike “killing 106 civilians [in] an apparent war crime.” The secretary general of Amnesty, Agnès Callamard, recently spoke of “Israel’s flagrant disregard for international law.” On Nov. 1, Israel dropped Boeing bombs on the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, killing hundreds of civilians. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, said the Jabalia bombings “could amount to war crimes.” 

Even the U.S. State Department has begun publicly acknowledging the Israeli military’s human rights violations. Upon the release of the State Department’s annual human rights report on April 22, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that civilian deaths in Gaza “have also raised deeply troubling human rights concerns.” The report itself cites the non-governmental organization Military Court Watch, which alleges the violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention by Israeli prisons.

What about the “violation of […] dignity,” which the WUIMC assures us it does not seek to profit from? The Israeli army itself published what Omar Shakir, HRW’s Israel-Palestine Director, described in a tweet as “shocking photos of detained Palestinian men in Gaza stripped & blindfolded,” on a public street corner beside a burning building. (The photos remind me of the images of stripped and kneeling, illegally detained prisoners in the American facilities at Abu Ghraib during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.) Shakir goes on to write that the photos’ publication “constitutes ‘outrages upon personal dignity’—a form of inhumane treatment that amounts to a war crime. Perpetrators should be held to account.”

In light of all this evidence of “the violation of basic human rights and dignity,” Chancellor Martin’s March 5 interview bears revisiting. In response to a question about possible divestment from fossil fuels, Martin states: “We’ve made the decision that the purpose of the endowment is to generate as much return as possible. We do so in a socially responsible way.”

Another emergent question: what is “socially responsible” about seeking to profit from a company enabling the death and maiming of more than 2% of all children in Gaza? The University has recently displayed hypersensitivity to perceived “threats.” In light of this, will Chancellor Martin be barred from campus due to the threat that his goal of generating “as much return as possible” poses to innocent human life and common decency?

Chancellor Martin, and any member of the WUIMC’s Board of Directors, could have been a child born in Gaza. It is a matter of chance that they were not (along with myself and most readers). We abuse our relative fortune if we ignore these children’s death and suffering, treating them as though they were worthless.  

Unlike the WUIMC’s Board of Directors, I am a humanities student and therefore illiterate about matters of business. My failure to “generate as much return as possible” is doubtless due in part to my propensity, occasionally, to work for free. I will now do so again, offering the following complimentary edits to the “Statement of Investment Principles” for the next annual report:

“The WUIMC has a fiduciary responsibility to make decisions that are financially, ethically, and legally dubious (to put it nicely). The WUIMC will only seek to profit from the violation of basic human rights and dignity when the Chancellor deems it ‘socially responsible’ to do so.”

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.