With the formation of an advisory committee on Darfur by President Barry Mills this week, Bowdoin may become the latest addition to the small list of colleges and universities taking a stand on investment in Sudan.
Harvard, Stanford, Amherst, Dartmouth, and, most recently, Brown and Yale have all taken some form of action concerning their investments in the region in response to concerns related to genocide and human rights violations in Darfur.
Mills said the steps taken by these schools will likely be reviewed by the nine-member committee made up of faculty, staff, students, and trustees and headed by Gerald Chertavian '87. He noted, however, that these institutions have taken "different but similar positions."
"I think it's important not to generalize what any school has done, to read quite carefully the statements that they make," Mills said. "In general terms all of these schools have elected to divest, but the technicalities of what that means have to be read very carefully because it is subtly and not so subtly different."
While Mills said the committee's primary responsibility is to consider investment policy and make a recommendation to the trustees in time for their campus meetings in May, he noted there may be room for non-financial recommendations.
"I think that if the people on the committee have views as to actions that the College ought to take that are educational, things that we can do to show our support, certainly we should talk about that," Mills said.
Whatever action the committee recommends, Mills said he wants people to understand its implications and that "transparency is very important."
"I don't want it take on meaning that it might not have," he said. "I think it's very important for this committee to do a very careful analysis of how and if Bowdoin should take action, and if it should take action, how does it take action in a meaningful way and in a way that people understand."
Mills said the committee was strictly designed for dealing with the issue of Sudan, which is "so clearly and uniformly viewed as genocide."
"I think we should be very wary of expanding this concept in a way that would expose our investments to the political arena and to people with different social agendas," he said. "I am very concerned that given the level of political discourse in the nation, in the world, and frankly on this campus, that exposing our endowment to that political discourse is entirely inappropriate. I do believe that having a discourse about Darfur is completely appropriate."
Committee member and Vice President for Investments Paula Volent, who has been researching the issue and meeting with peer institutions to discuss the issue, echoed Mills's concern.
"This is unusual and serious. Usually we won't let politics influence our portfolio theory," she said, "but ethics is one of the things I seriously consider."
Volent said she spent last week going through the portfolio and found the College does not have any exposure at all to the major companies that have attracted attention because of their activities in Darfur. Yet, she pointed to the complexity of the issue, noting that Bowdoin's portfolio positions change daily and its limited partnerships and private equity investments make full disclosure impractical.
"To say we're not going to directly invest would be hypocritical because we don't directly invest anyway, so that wouldn't be an action we would take," she said.
Mills said that though the underlying issue is not complicated?"what's going on in the Sudan is obviously horrendous"?the complexities of today's financial world make the issue appropriate for a committee.
"Clearly I could have met with some trustees and the investment committee and come up with a policy and have the college adopt it, but I think there is a very strong benefit [to having the committee] because this issue is very complicated," he said. "This is a situation where we can educate the members of the community and that will be valuable for them. At the same time we can come with a legitimate position that is genuinely supported. The process is very important at a place like Bowdoin."
"I don't think we'd be doing this if it didn't reflect genuine commitment on behalf of the administration to take seriously the views of the broader campus community," said committee member and Associate Professor of Government and Asian Studies Henry Laurence.
Laurence said that because the committee has yet to meet, it is too early to consider possible recommendations. He noted that the advisory board has the potential to have an impact on several fronts.
"Clearly there's concern about what's going on," he said. "I wish frankly that there was a better understanding, because it seems people here are not especially well-informed. If this helps people become aware of what's going on, then that's a definite benefit."
Student committee member Emma Cooper-Mullin '07 also said she is uncertain as to what the final result will be.
"I don't have a strong view going into it. I'm very open-minded at this point," she said. "I'm curious to see the research the committee does and to see how the tone of debate on campus changes."