Three years ago, students were clamoring for financial transparency, particularly in regards to Oberlin College’s endowment. The endowment is a primary source of funding so unawareness of investments and investment policies suggests a lack of say in what our college decides to associate itself with and support. Though the unrest seems to have temporarily subsided, non-transparency continues to surround Oberlin’s endowment.
Just last week Oberlin, along with several other colleges, was accused in a lawsuit for having invested its endowment in a limited partnership, Realty Financial Partners, which is said to charge exorbitant interest rates on loans. Realty Financial Partners was accused in this case of having charged 42 percent in interest — twice the legal limit, according to The Boston Globe. The suit, filed by a Massachusetts developer, attacks the legality of such a rate in the state in which he took out the loan.
Regardless of the way this lawsuit pans out, the issue of responsible investing still remains imminent. For a school that strives for equality and equity, investment decisions such as these seem careless if not callous. As of now, Oberlin’s Investment Committee, the group of trustees and administrators that oversees investment of the school’s endowment, does not dictate which companies the school’s investment managers buy stock in. Without such discretion Oberlin will likely continue to run into damning charges about the merits of its investments.
In June 2006, the College Trustees authorized the establishment of the Socially Responsible Investment Committee, but as of yet, the committee has not actually formed since no students have volunteered to serve on it. However, the committee has not been well publicized. The last active SRIC committee was in 1999.
We are concerned with the ethics regarding products we have on campus, as is evident by the ongoing efforts of the Purchasing Committee. We may not be seen drinking Coca-Cola, but what stops our investment managers from investing in the decidedly unwholesome company? Such a stance seems quite hypocritical, making it seem as if responsible investing only matters when its effects are tangible on or off the shelves of DeCafé. This is reminiscent of the push for McDonald’s to stop using non-biodegradable Styrofoam — though it seemed noble on the surface, most of us remained perfectly content when those same containers popped up elsewhere in the world, comforted by the idea that “we’re not personally destroying the environment.”
As a school with a purported sense of ethical responsibility, we must make sure that all of our decisions, even the least visible ones, are in line with our ideals. It may seem that our ability as students to affect change in Oberlin’s fiscal realm is limited, but we do have recourse — through the Board of Trustees, SRIC and good ole’ fashioned Oberlin-style protest. We have options, so now it’s up to us to use them and make our voices heard.