In a recent report, the Sustainable Endowment Institute gave Bowdoin a failing grade on endowment transparency. Only a handful of people, including President Mills, have any information regarding how the endowment is invested. Bowdoin investments are handled by outside managers rather than directly, which means the College must adhere to confidentiality agreements.
Though the system is not transparent, it appears to be working well?the Orient reported last week that the endowment earned 1.3 percent growth during the last fiscal year, a number that college officials are pleased with in light of the tumultuous economy. While it is not necessary for all of Bowdoin's investments to be public, it is important that students have a greater understanding of the endowment that funds our education.
The endowment plays an important role at Bowdoin, both now and in future. During the last fiscal year, it accounted for about a quarter of the operating budget, including about two-thirds of the financial aid budget. A growing endowment ensures that the College will be able to maintain its commitment to a liberal arts education for years to come. The endowment, however, is complicated.
There are a number of ways to allow students to become more involved and informed. Bowdoin could make the investments held in its name?about 2 percent?accessible to students in some way. A broader discussion about the role of the endowment could also help to increase understanding; Monday's forum on the financial crisis is a good place to start. How might the credit crunch impact the endowment, and what steps will the College take?
Students should invest in their own understanding as well. Though students have been involved in the endowment in the past?most recently in 2006 with the genocide in Darfur?it should not take a humanitarian crisis for us to start asking questions. The endowment plays an important role in funding our Bowdoin education, and we ought to be more informed.
In 1981, Bowdoin President Willard Enteman, expanding on the role the College might play in socially responsible investing around the apartheid in South Africa, wrote: "Bowdoin's commitment to liberal education, which involves moral and aesthetic dimensions as well as more neutral intellectual concerns, gives us special obligations. As liberal educators, we try to teach our students to integrate a wide range of concerns and to draw facts and values together (if they ever could really be separated) in arriving at their own conclusions and decisions....We should welcome, not flee from, opportunities to show our students how liberally educated people face such decisions."
Our commitment to a liberal education and the common good should be pushing all of us?administration, faculty, and students?to always be thinking about ways we can improve ourselves and our surroundings. That includes thinking critically about how the College operates.