This year, says the Sustainable Endowments Institute, Bowdoin did its homework. The College's overall grade on the Institute's College Sustainability Report Card rose from a B in 2010 to an A minus in 2011.

The uptick was a result of the College's improvements in the categories of Endowment Transparency, from an F to a C, and Shareholder Engagement, from a D to a C. These are two of the nine categories that the Report Card evaluates. The College also improved from a B to an A in Green Building. It received As in all other categories both years.

President Barry Mills was enthusiastic about the improvement, with reservation.

"It's always better to get an A minus than a B, but, candidly, all of these surveys and rankings are in so many respects arbitrary and self-serving," he said, though he pointed out that he was not well-versed on this survey in particular. "The real focus for the College is: Are we doing what we want to be doing?"

Last year's F in Endowment Transparency was largely because Bowdoin did not publish a list of endowment holdings and did not release the shareholder voting record of its mutual funds or commingled funds.

"This year we are going to post a list of how we voted on the handful of proxies we voted on," Senior Vice President for Investments Paula Volent wrote in an e-mail to the Orient.

Volent wrote that perhaps this accounts for the change "in the Endowment Transparency grade." A proxy is a vote on an issue relevant to shareholders of a company.

Mills explained in a telephone interview that the College does not buy stocks directly. Bowdoin mostly invests in commingled funds, which provide the College with investment opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable due to the endowment's relatively small size.

In doing so, however, Bowdoin forfeits many of its rights to impose investment restraints on the managers of these commingled funds.

Bowdoin's endowment money, once mixed into a much larger commingled fund, has little clout when it comes time for proxy voting. And since the votes are cast by a representative of the commingled fund, rather than by the College itself, Bowdoin does not always even have the right to disclose the proxy voting record generated by its own money.

Volent wrote that she has "issues with [the Institute's] methodology." In an Orient article last year, she expressed frustration that Bowdoin's investment technique, necessitated by its small size, was being held to the same criteria as the endowments of much larger institutions, which may not need to invest in commingled funds.

Both Mills and Volent spoke to the questionable importance of proxy matters, "most of which were approvals for the firms' engagement of their annual audit team," Volent said.

Mills expressed the College's hesitation in allowing endowment investments choices to consider social and political issues.

"Those instances are pretty rare," he said.

The goal of the endowment, as stated on the Bowdoin website, is "to generate the highest risk-adjusted returns possible to support the mission of the College," not to support a social or political advocacy, even regarding issues important to the College, such as sustainability.

The Report Card's grade for Shareholder Engagement found that the College "provides its investment managers with specific guidelines that determine proxy votes," an improvement from last year when those guidelines were determined to be "general."

"We paid a lot more attention to the questions that were being asked and we answered them in a way that showed them what we were doing even if they weren't asking the right question," Mills said.

The College Sustainability Report Card evaluates over 300 schools across the country. Bowdoin's grade of A minus puts it among the top 52 schools overall.