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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Student group calls for endowment transparency

Published: March 14, 2008
Section: Front Page

Following poor grades received in the categories of endowment transparency and shareholder involvement on the Sustainable Endowments Foundation’s College Sustainability Report Card released in October, a group of student activists has formed a working group called InVEST to press the administration to reform the policies that led to Brandeis’ failing grades.

InVEST, Independent Voices for Endowment Sustainability and Transparency, is composed of members from Students for Environmental Action, Students for a Democratic Society, Democracy for America, and the Brandeis Labor Coalition.

According to InVEST coordinator and DFA member Alex Melman ’11, the group’s goal is to achieve endowment transparency and increase shareholder involvement in endowment investment.

Specifically, InVEST would like the university to make public its holdings in “publicly traded businesses [and] establish an Advisory Committee to the Board of Trustees on Shareholder Involvement, with substantial student representation,” according to the group’s webpage.

SEA Vice-President and member of InVEST Matt Schmidt ’11 explained that his group aims to improve Brandeis’ overall C grade on the Sustainability Report Card. “A more transparent and responsible endowment,” he said, “will lead to a more sustainable campus.”

The group, which has been in existence for about a week, has already met with members of the administration, including Debby Kuenstner, Chief Investment Officer. Keunstner was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

“The administration is not exactly opposed to the idea,” Melman said. “I think they are willing to recognize that this has a broad base of support.”

The administration’s reservations, Melman explained, include concern that “transparency can hurt us financially,” and that “most investment managers have confidentiality clauses.”

He added, “they don’t think it’s advisable or possible to have transparency.”

In response to financial concerns, Melman explained that InVEST would like the university to release its endowment holdings “six months out of date.”

“There’s no competitive disadvantage,” he said, “we don’t need [the university] to reveal the amount of money” invested in each company, “just a list.”

Melman described the group’s game plan. InVEST is currently collecting petition signatures and hopes to bring a proposal to the Student Union, solicit club support, “work with the administration to the point where they’re not opposed and go before the Faculty Senate and get their support.”

Student support so far, Melman said, “has been very positive.” Schmidt and SEA and InVEST member Anna Khandras ’11 echoed Melman’s comment.

Melman stressed club interest in endowment transparency. Groups like STAND and the Brandeis Labor Coalition, he commented, have an interest in endowment transparency in order to ensure that Brandeis is not investing in companies that have interests in Sudan or support companies with poor labor practices.

As it stands, said Melman, “there is no forum for the community to express concerns about investment.” He added, “there’s no public oversight, no watch dog.”

Melman explained that schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Brown have in place policies like that which InVEST would like Brandeis to adopt. He commented, InVEST wants to “bring Brandeis to the forefront of endowment policy…an example for the rest of the university community.”