Divestment = Politics or Morals?

Demands that Reed College divest its endowment funds from some dubious source of profit or another have percolated around campus for as long as I have taught here.

At my first convocation ceremony in the Reed gym (Aug. 1989) I sat on the stage with other new faculty while a group of student protesters silently stood by with signs and banners demanding that the College divest from companies located in then-apartheid South Africa. Leaping forward two decades, I added my support to the student voices demanding that the College divest from fossil fuel companies. Most recently, students campaigned for divestment from Wells Fargo, partly on the basis of Wells Fargo’s profiting from the private prison industry and partly because of Wells Fargo’s fraudulent business practices.

In every case, the Trustees have stood firm and said, “No divestment. These profits protect academic freedom.”

Sometimes they have even gone farther. In the case of fossil fuel investments, they took steps to conceal their investments. But the rationale has never altered. The Trustees claim that divestment would represent taking a political stance, jeopardize academic freedom, and this is a road they cannot travel.

I sympathize. Deciding the merits of any divestment demand is treacherous territory. However, the reflex-like claim over the decades that every potentially controversial investment decision, because of possible political considerations, had to be based purely on the goal of maximizing profit is starting to look like a coward’s hiding place.

A recent letter to the Reed Magazine (Sept. 2018) made the point well,

“While the practice of capitalism is inherently amoral, those like Reed College who hope to simply receive a share of the returns of the capitalist can choose to take a moral position about whom they get into bed with. Divestiture from Wells Fargo is not a political question, but an ethical or moral question. If the trustees did indeed understand this, but felt the earningsĀ  of Wells Fargo were too rich to give up, they should have had the courage to tell us so.” – Peter M. Gladhart ’62, Dayton, Oregon

It should be pointed out that academic freedom doesn’t protect faculty from charges of immoral behavior, and that the latter can be cause for dismissal.

We should all ask ourselves (I stand squarely in front of the mirror when I ask this question) how we will respond to the questions of future generations concerning our failure to address climate change. What financial benefit was worth the cost?

Read the Board of Trustees statements on Wells Fargo. Learn more about Reed’s investment policies.

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