Student group continues push for endowment transparency
The Washington University Students for Endowment Transparency met with administrators last November in hopes of increasing endowment transparency and holding the University accountable for making socially responsible investments.
According to senior Todd Zimmer, the WUSET group was formed in spring 2009 when he and a few other students found it impossible to obtain information on specific endowment investments made by the University. WUSET’s mission is to negotiate oversight and a report-back feature that students hope to see in the University’s investment decisions.
Participants of the meeting included freshman Dan Cohn, sophomore Molly Gott, junior Jacob Stern, Zimmer, Chief Investment Officer Kim Walker, Assistant to the Chancellor Rob Wild and Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration Hank Webber.
“We are behind in not having endowment transparency,” Cohn said. “We would like to incorporate more stakeholders in the decisions. We don’t want to hurt the endowment; we want to know what’s in it.”
The group presented a set of what it said were socially responsible investment guidelines with three proposals: first, the creation of an investment advisory committee composed of undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, faculty and staff who would review and make suggestions to investment decisions; second, the committee will report back to the school community about specific investment decisions; third, the creation of a Web site providing specific investment decisions and holdings open only to the University community.
“It was a frustrating meeting,” Zimmer said. “They expected us to sell them our ideas while we wanted to have a conversation and figure out where we stood. Kim Walker told us that they’re completely responsibility-blind in their investments and there’s also no report-back feature. So whatever the Wash. U. Investment Company does, there’s no way for students to know at all.”
Zimmer expressed frustration that student views cannot currently play into investments.
“Most of the board members don’t make investment decisions,” Zimmer said. “The people who are making these kinds of decisions are business leaders who don’t have a real strong commitment to [the community]. There’s no voice for students, staff, or community on these boards. There are two student representatives to the board of trustees, but they’re non-voting members. They’re not elected by students; they submit applications [that are] approved by the chancellor’s office; and they don’t have access to investment information.”
The administrators, however, felt that the first meeting was a starting point, and that the students were eager to hear about a decision right away.
“From the administrative perspective, it was a very good meeting. We were clear that we couldn’t make any decisions in that meeting,” Wild said. “The students raised some important issues that they really cared about. We have one purpose, and that is to make money—because the endowment can be invested back into the school. The students proposed a different way of looking at the endowment.”
Walker expressed similar concerns.
“We are interested in what the students have proposed,” Walker said. “We don’t know how to incorporate some of their suggestions without compromising some of the objectives that we had for the endowment.”
The students cited that many other universities, including Brown and Columbia, have adopted socially responsible investing, and feel that the University can become one of them. But the administration feels the need to look into these facts before seeing what can be done.
“I think the key is to understand what actually has been adopted—to go beyond the headlines, to see really what some of these universities are really doing,” Walker said. “That’s part of what we’re really trying to do now. It’s publicly difficult just by searching the media. We’ll be talking to our counterparts at these universities so that we can at least bring the facts to the table.”
Zimmer expressed optimism about WUSET’s future.
“We’re going to try to rally student support…We’re going to try to get students more momentum, demonstrate to the University that students do want this…It would give students the ability to comment on the investments. We feel that the University could easily balance social investment responsibility and make money for the endowment.”