As the Board of Trustees meets this weekend, the genocide continues in Darfur. The trustees may believe that there is nothing they can do to help stop this genocide. Yet there is something they can do?they can use the force of the College's nearly $600-million endowment to send the message that Bowdoin will discourage investments in companies that cooperate with governments that support genocide.
Of paramount importance in the discussion on socially responsible investing is the finding of an appropriate balance. We must seek to maximize growth of the College's endowment, and we must appreciate that it is the financial backbone that allows this institution to do all that it does. The endowment helps keep tuition down and provides opportunities for low-income students through generous financial aid grants.
At the same time, we must exhibit a conscious awareness of the potential symbolic or actual impacts of such investment decisions.
The problem of defining what exactly "socially responsible" means is perhaps most challenging. When no one can agree on what makes an investment bad, how is Bowdoin to draw the line? While many might be in favor of limiting investment in companies that are poor environmental stewards, how does an institution label some actions as acceptable and others as unacceptable?
This ambiguity?and the specter of overzealous divestment hampering the College's ability to grow its endowment?makes it difficult to institute a realistic and coherent divestment policy relating to issues like environmental protection and labor conditions. However, it should not constrain our response to one crucial issue: genocide.
For several years, the world community has allowed a horrific conflict to continue in the Darfur region of Sudan. The militia sponsored by the Sudanese government is responsible for atrocities that the United States has classified as genocide. No significant effort has been made by the world's leaders to stop the massive loss of life. Where others have failed, Bowdoin should do whatever it can?however small on a global scale?to resolve the crisis.
In the spirit of the trustee subcommittee formed in 1981 to discuss divestment from apartheid South Africa, Bowdoin must first take steps to initiate a forum for dialogue on campus about Darfur and socially responsible investing. As it did two decades ago, this discussion should consist of students, administrators, faculty, and trustees. Such a forum should be permanent, so that the next time an issue like Darfur or South Africa comes up, a mechanism for discussion will already be in place.
Secondly, Bowdoin's trustees should follow the lead of Amherst College and make a public statement about its opposition to investment in companies that deal with the Sudanese government. Since Bowdoin does not directly invest in companies?it invests in funds managed by outside investors?it should make its opposition to Sudanese investment known to its fund managers, as Amherst has.
An action by Bowdoin's board alone probably would not hurt the bottom line of any of the companies that do business with the Sudanese government. Action would likely only be symbolic. But symbolism is important. And if enough institutions like Bowdoin make a stand, perhaps these companies will listen.
Bowdoin's administrators maintain that the College only invests with reputable fund managers, and we are inclined to believe them. The administration also says that indicating our opposition to certain investments might make fund managers less willing to work with Bowdoin to invest its endowment. But if Bowdoin's vocal opposition to genocide would make a fund manager less likely to work with our college, is that really the kind of "reputable" person with whom we want to invest?
The editorials represent the majority view of The Bowdoin Orient's editorial board. The editorial board is comprised of James D. Baumberger, Drew Fulton, Bobby Guerette, Evan S. Kohn, and Beth Kowitt.