Bowdoin's many "A"s in sustainability continue to be plagued by a failing grade in endowment transparency, according to the 2010 College Sustainability Report Card. The College earned an overall "B."
Following the report's release some administrators have suggested that the report is an inaccurate measure of Bowdoin's financial policies.
Senior Vice President for Investments Paula Volent spoke about the unique way that Bowdoin invests its endowment money and the inaccurate reflection of those policies in the Sustainability Report Card, released annually by the Sustainable Endowments Institute. According to Volent, the major problem with the report card is that it does not take into account the unique financial situations of small schools like Bowdoin and instead assumes that the schools it covers invest in public funds.
"We're small compared to a lot of other schools so we don't do any direct investments...we invest in commingled funds," said Volent. "Because we're in commingled funds we're under privacy policies. We're not a public fund, which is subject to the Freedom of Information act. A lot of our managers do non-public things so if we made that public we could be subject to insider trading."
President Barry Mills also commented on the private investments of the College and the lack of public investments that forces Bowdoin to keep its endowment private information.
"I really believe in being straight forward. We don't own any stocks. We haven't owned any stocks for years," said Mills.
Volent discussed why investments in sustainable projects could not made public.
"We are investing in a lot of renewable energy projects. These companies are not public yet and will eventually reach the public market," said Volent. "A lot of the information is patented and cannot be made public."
These privacy policies make it legally impossible for Bowdoin to make its endowment public information. Despite the private investment limitations of the College, however, Volent and Mills are in the process of creating a Web site containing a public record of the proxy votes of Bowdoin shareholders.
"It will have on it any proxies that we vote on in person and at the College and how we voted and what the issues were," said Volent. "I will also include a guideline that we present to our outline corporate managers to guidelines on proxy voting."
Mills, while in support of the project, was skeptical of the Web site's benefit to the faculty and the student body.
"Most of these proxy votes are on issues that have no consequence to the College or these issues," said Mills. "Even though the report card makes endowment transparency an important issue, I know from my experience as a corporate lawyer that these issues have nothing to do with anything people would be interested in. That being said we are going to disclose it."
"We are investing in a lot of renewable energy projects. These companies are not public yet and will eventually reach the public market. A lot of the information is patented and cannot be made public. One of the things when we invest in a new fund is to go through a checklist to make sure they are ethical and for the common good of Bowdoin," said Volent.
The biggest concern of the administration is not the endowment transparency, but the nature of the survey itself.
Coordinator for Sustainable Bowdoin Keisha Payson expressed frustration at the generalization in the survey question and the lack of transparency of the scores.
"We asked and it was not super clear as to why our grade went down," said Payson. "I was looking at what other schools have gotten to see what they were doing that we weren't and it wasn't very transparent why our grade went down."
Bowdoin increased its score in green transportation with programs such as the Yellow Bike Club and Zipcar Program. The school was knocked from an "A" to a "B" in green buildings, a grade some found to be confusing given the LEED certified Watson Arena and Adams Hall.
"The fact that our grade went down in green buildings frustrates me," said Payson. "The fact that we got an F in endowment transparency doesn't really bother me because I can't control it. I think an improvement there would be great in our overall grade but at the same time they have their policies in place."
Mills expressed a desire for a better grade, but also support for the sustainable programs Bowdoin already has in place.
"The first job is education and the second job is acting in a way that is sustainable," said Mills. "It's always a concern when you don't get a good grade and that someone is going to look at it and think badly of the College. We always have to worry about the College reputation, but you can't make bad decisions for the school based on a rating system that is, in my mind, nave."
As far as Bowdoin's peer NESCAC schools go, many attained a higher overall grade but also earned poor endowment transparency scores.
Two schools, Wesleyan and Amherst, both obtained "A"s in endowment transparency, but Mills and Volent suggested that those results may be inaccurate.
"I would like to know who's making the scoring and they can tell you 'here's why you got the mark you did and how you can do better'," said Volent. "People figure out to game the system and then they can use that score."
Mills agreed, adding that endowment transparency is a myth among small colleges.
"I think that if you actually really dug under the policies of the other schools that claim to be transparent their policies are in fact the same," he said.
While endowment transparency may not improve in the eyes of the Sustainability Report Card any time soon, Bowdoin's new shareholder Web site will give some insight into investment information. For now, according to Mills and Payson, the College should focus on successful sustainability programs and look for ways to better our score in the future.
"We will endeavor to do better and to fill out the survey more carefully to accurately reflect how we are doing and hope for a better score in the future," said Mills.
Payson agreed, adding that a benefit of surveys like this one is the promotion of environmental discussion.
"The report definitely increases the level of discourse among the administration," she said. "Even though it may not be transparent, it is worth it because it gets people talking about it."