In a meeting that vacillated between tense and collaborative, University President Morton Schapiro sat down with representatives of all three student divestment movements – Fossil Free NU, NU Divest and Unshackle NU – on Thursday afternoon to plan the formation of a socially responsible investing committee.
Students filled a long table and soon crowded around the walls of a conference room in the basement of Scott Hall. Since the most recent interaction between the movements and the administration had been a walkout from the president’s house over the creation of the very investment committee they gathered to meet, the air was tense. Activists were angry that the committee was established without student input and concerned that it would appease students while doing little to address their concerns.
Touting his history fighting for divestment from South Africa as president of Williams College, Schapiro attempted to cast himself as their ally from the start, generating mixed responses from a group of students that have repeatedly been at odds with his administration. After explaining that he had previously advocated for students and wanted to help them come up with a committee that would be effective as possible, he grew visibly annoyed as two Unshackle NU members, Weinberg freshman Jessica Onyi and SESP freshman Sky Patterson, read a prepared statement condemning the administration’s previous interactions with students at the University.
“Is this a lecture or is this a discussion?” Schapiro asked repeatedly, to which Onyi and Patterson paused and continued their statement. “Did any of my preamble actually have an impact on what you just said?” he said.
Eventually, when they had finished, Onyi replied by saying that Schapiro had given his version of their relationship and now they were giving theirs “in hopes of moving forward.”
And they did. Working from templates of other universities with socially responsible investing committees, the activists and Schapiro agreed that four things must be included based on issues students at other universities had encountered:
1. The committee must be able to go to the board directly with their decisions as opposed to using the president as an intermediary.
2. While other universities have clauses stating that the committee’s resolutions cannot be “divisive,” Northwestern’s committee will be able to propose such solutions.
3. The committee cannot be used as an obstacle to prevent student interaction with the board.
4. The committee must have guiding principles so that decisions are not at the whim of the committee members.
“What we’re doing here in making a committee is not very groundbreaking,” Weinberg junior and NU Divest activist Ruba Assaf said. “But we do have an opportunity to make it more groundbreaking by making it more effective than what we’ve seen at other schools.”
According to the Association of Governing Boards, 20.1 percent of private universities and over 70 percent public universities have student representatives on their Board of Trustees. But most student input has not led to divestment, although Columbia divested from private prisons after a recommendation from its committee.
After the committee was created in March, University spokesman Al Cubbage told NBN that he was unsure whether the committee would affect divestment. He said it could more affect proxy voting – where shareholders can raise and vote on issues like environmental and ethical employment practices – and educate students about how the University handles investments.
Schapiro attempted to make clear that his power over the University’s investments is in some ways as limited as that of the students. Northwestern’s charter vests all of the power of divestment to the investment committee and the Board of Trustees, whose sole mandate is to maximize the University’s ROI (return on investment).
“I don’t agree with that view, but I haven’t successfully made a compelling case [for them to change that],” Schapiro said.
The president said he encouraged the Board to adopt the UN’s principles for socially responsible investing, which it did late last year. In June of 2014, Schapiro tried to convince the Board to divest from fossil fuels to no avail. He said the vote was 17-0 against.
Schapiro and the activists repeatedly came to blows on the question of protests and on the committee’s exact mission. Schapiro and Chief Investment Officer William McLean wanted to come up with the most pragmatic plan, while activists said they can’t be constrained by what’s “realistic.” McLean said the further Northwestern strayed from the framework of other universities, the more likely it was the committee would reject it.
“If we can’t agree to figure out a potentially effective committee, nothing will change,” Schapiro said. “Protests aren't going to change [it]. If anything, it will make them less likely to listen.”
Schapiro’s rejection of protests seemed to particularly rub the activists the wrong way, who said they saw the recent walkout at Schapiro’s house, along with three years of disrupting board meetings, as the only reason Northwestern made the committee and agreed to meet with them Thursday.
“All the attention we’ve gained on campus form the student body and the pressure that's built has been the result of protesting,” Fossil Free NU campaign coordinator Scott Brown, a Medill junior, said. “I don’t think that movements can gain momentum or support without protesting.”
Nevertheless, Schapiro eventually came around to the idea that activists should have a seat at the table when the investment committee presents their proposals to the board, and that the University should explore amending the Northwestern’s charter to give the committee a voice, or assure that the investment committee is beholden to socially-responsible principles.
Over the next week, Schapiro and McLean will meet with faculty and alumni to gather information. Student-activists, meanwhile, will attempt to come up with a first draft for the committee’s charter.
“I’m glad the students are taking the first shot,” Schapiro said. “We’ll see what they come up with.”