Monday, April 14, 2008

The University of Florida and the question of endowments


The University of Florida has been making headlines lately as a result of a controversy over how the institution manages the funds in its endowment. Here's an excerpt from an article on the subject in UF's paper:

"Eleven members of a student-protest group urging UF to make its investments transparent dug into a vegetarian meal they said could be their last of the semester outside Tigert Hall on Wednesday.

"The students said they plan to strike, or starve, until UF President Bernie Machen agrees to meet with them over lunch to discuss socially responsible investment plans for UF's $1.2 billion endowment."

For those interested in SRI, such clashes certainly raise a number of issues. First is the amount of funds in college and university endowments. Endowments comprise a huge pool of resources, very few of which apply any sort of screen or take any SRI position.

Second is the issue of tactics. Hunger strikes have become popular with activist student groups in recent years, in part due to high profile successes at Harvard and Georgetown. Are such efforts consistent with Quaker principles?

Without knowing all of the details, it is of course difficult to comment on this case in particular. But it is possible to make a few observations on the subject in general. One is that certain Quakers have called into question what they feel are "coercive" actions as being in conflict with the peace testimony. Two examples of this are Francis Nicholson's Pendle Hill Pamphlet "Quaker Money" and Jack Powelson's book Seeking Truth Together. Another consideration is that there are organizations devoted specifically to the matter of socially responsible endowments that are willing to work with students and administrators in crafting an appropriate approach. The Sustainable Endowments Institute, headed by Mark Orlowski (who happens to be a Quaker), is a prime example.

That all being said, what exactly the peace testimony is and how it is to be held in tension with the testimonies of equality, integrity and simplicity, are both weighty questions. We will explore some of the complications of these in future posts, but it is worth noting that there may be no obvious answer to this or many of the other ethical questions that emerge once we begin heading down the path toward investments that align with our beliefs.

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