Our duty to invest responsibly
Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. – Gilbert K. Chesterson
“[Colby] fosters intellectual and personal growth with graduates emerging as conscientious, committed leaders ready to make a profound impact on their world. A Colby education is distinctly inspired.” -Colby.edu
If you want to teach young adults to be better world citizens, you might be a college professor. If you want to moralize on conscientiousness and personal growth, then give business to Bank of America and keep your endowment a secret, you might be a Colby College President.
How an institution spends its money speaks volumes about their values. As Colby undergoes a two-year, fifteen million dollar renovation to its art museum, plans for gender resource center remains shelved due to budgetary concerns. It’s against this backdrop that President Adams gave the football team ten thousand dollars for a bell, explaining, “Tradition is important.” He has also offered up to seven thousand dollars to the mid-Maine homeless shelter as an incentive for decreased dorm vandalism.
I don’t intended to get into the nuances of these decisions (and alumni donations are indeed a complex topic), except to say that they raise questions of values—and value—much bigger than ten thousand or even fifteen million dollars. President Adams answering for the bell is a positive step, but there is a lot of explaining left to do. Lets take for example, Colby’s relationship with Bank of America. At the heart of our campus is Cotter Union and in the middle of Cotter Union is a Bank of America ATM. For those unfamiliar with B of A’s spotless reputation, here is a partial overview:
Bank of America is categorized as too big to fail. This is the only thing saving it from a credit rating adequately described as, “worthless junk.” America’s ninth largest corporation argued that its much-publicized five-dollar debit card fee was in response to government regulations of other fees, such as those charged to retailers for credit card purchases. The “market forces” defense is a cute, patronizing excuse for corporate honesty. It would be more accurate to call it insurance against bad business decisions.
When Bank of America bought Merril Lynch it took responsibility for trillions (See: 1,000 billions) of dollars in the same risky derivatives that led to the recent recession. Recently, B of A transferred these loans from Merril Lynch, to the parent company, Bank of America. To quote Matt Tabibi of Rolling Stone, “The move was made, according to reports, so that Bank of America could avoid posting $3.3 billion in collateral to satisfy the company’s creditors. In other words, Bank of America just got You the Taxpayer to co-sign as much as $53 trillion worth of dicey derivative contracts.”
To paraphrase, if you the taxpayer take your money out of Bank of America in response to increased fees, B of A will happily put it on the government’s tab.
How’s that for impacting the world?
Not that Colby students couldn’t take their money out of Bank of America, because they could. But, its hard to blame someone for choosing to spend 30 seconds cashing a check on campus rather than the 30 minutes it might take to do it in town. No, the responsibility here lies with Colby’s leadership, who need to get Bank of America off Mayflower Hill and show some of the citizenship they claim to be instilling in students.
Unlike Bank of America, a local bank or credit union ATM in Cotter would encourage, née allow, students to support the mid-Maine economy. Perhaps a special Colby plan could be created with a partnering bank to allow students to avoid the out-of-bank fees that currently make B of A the most appealing option. At any rate, there should be another ATM on campus so that students have that choice.
Still, where students put their money is ultimately up to each individual. What about the College?
In fall 1999, Williams College inaugurated a chapter of the Responsible Endowments Coalition. From their mission statement: “Our goal is to foster social and environmental change by making responsible investment common practice amongst colleges and universities.”
What the students at Williams found was “substantial investments in Phillip Morris, GE, and other companies with notoriously bad social and environmental behavior. [They] felt that by holding such stock, the college was supporting the activities of those corporations, which in some cases meant advertising cigarettes to kids, producing military weapons, and polluting the nearby Hudson and Housatonic Rivers with PCBs.”
Now, we are not Williams, but we do have a notoriously bad track record on endowment transparency. In an otherwise superlative study by the environmental ratings group Sustainable Endowments Coalition, Colby earned a ‘D’ in endowment transparency and ‘C’ in shareholder engagement. This is good enough for second to last in NESCAC in each category. Not that you need an outside organization to tell you transparency is lacking at Colby, but if you wanted one, there it is. To quote the current director of REC, Dan Apfel, “[Colleges] use terms like global citizenship all the time, so they should be acting that way.”
If the endowments at our sister schools of Williams and Amherst (which had a similar movement), and the Bank of America ATM are any indication, Colby’s investment practices have room for improvement. When the president of the school can’t invest $10,000 responsibly, it’s hard to believe the people managing the endowment are handling $622 million any better.
So President Adams, open the books on our endowment and get Bank of America out of here. Let’s see if the values supposedly taught at Colby are the same values held by those who preach them. Or is hypocrisy another part of the Colby tradition?