Sunday, January 8, 2012

Question-and-Answer on Israel and Divestment at Hampshire College (the "elephant in the room")

the "elephant in the room"
The false assertion that Hampshire College in 2009 divested itself of holdings in what student activists called "the Israeli Occupation of Palestine" came up when an ad hoc committee recently presented the new "socially responsible"—or "Environmental, Social and Governance" (ESG)—investing policy (full story here).

There, the committee forcefully reaffirmed the administration's consistent past assertions that no such thing ever occurred.

Here is the video of the conversation. Because the audio quality of remarks delivered without benefit of a microphone is poor, I have also transcribed the key portions of the dialogue to the best of my ability, with approximate time-markers.

The members of the committee present are (from left to right):

• Jonathan Scott: an alumnus, from the College’s first entering class, now member of the Board of Trustees and head of the Investment Committee
• Marlene Fried: a professor of philosophy and Director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program, who served as Interim President last year, while we conducted the search for a full-time president
• Beth Ward: Secretary of the College
• Stan Warner: Professor Emeritus of Economics, and long the faculty representative on the responsible investing committee
• Ken Rosenthal: first Treasurer of the College, now Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees

It was following the campaign by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) associated with the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement that the Board of Trustees decided the entire socially responsible investing policy had to be overhauled. The report to the community by the ad hoc committee charged with that review did not explicitly address Israel and the old divestment controversy.

An activist from Students for Justice in Palestine therefore clearly and politely raised the issue of what he called the “elephant in the room.” He had several related questions, beginning with process and procedures.  

Student questioner: (00:30) “My main three questions are, first is there transparency of the investment, is any of that changing? Is CHOIR [Committee at Hampshire On Investment Responsibility: oversees the definition and application of the guidelines; JW] the still the only way, does CHOIR have access to look at specific companies, where does that happen for students? [ . . . .] Where do you get access to looking at the portfolio?[ . . . . ]"

Jonathan Scott: "CHOIR will have full access to the portfolio: it is actually a subcommittee of the Investment Committee." [this is in fact covered quite simply and explicitly in the two-page portion of the document pertaining to CHOIR; JW].  (01:14) Stan Warner further explains that there will be access through the office of the Vice President for Financial Affairs, who then affirms that statement. He continues, “We’re invested in socially responsible funds, and you can then see: what specific companies.”

 Student: (01:28) “The other kind of, just, comment, question is, to me, feels like an elephant in the room, um, the reason, to me, that I felt that quite, well, not the reason, but the timing, was in February 2009, right after CHOIR had been restarted by students and CHOIR had put together this whole group of six companies—GE, DynCorp, Motorola, Terex, United Technologies, and [another] that I can’t get off the top of my head right now, as not fitting into the policy of our previous socially responsible investment [inaudible word]: making weapons and selling them to the Israeli army and being used in the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza. And that proposal went to the Investment Committee, the Investment Committee passed it, and it went to the Board, and on February 9, the Board voted on, to divest from [inaudible] that had those five companies in it.”

He goes on to note that this prompted a closer look at other investments: CHOIR sent the fund "to the entire Investment Committee to look at it and added another hundred or so companies to that list as also being, not part of the, not fitting into our socially responsible endowment (02:37) and they voted on divestment, so, one question is: did that happen? Did, are we out of that mutual fund? and are there companies—according to what we just saw, they’re [or: that are?] making weapons, operating from countries that are engaged in heavy violations, I would imagine those companies would still be, I know there’s not a blacklist of companies [ . . . . ]"

(03:00) “and lastly, just the fact that it wasn’t talked about, says something about the whole situation still” [and CHOIR’s {?} involvement] “because, that being said, sometimes even among college students with power at Hampshire our power is to make good statements [?], initially when those students joined CHOIR, that wasn’t the ritual, legal [?], to get the school to make a statement that investing in companies that are selling weapons to the Israeli army to use on the West Bank for illegal occupation or for illegal siege is socially irresponsible, and other schools should follow suit, end up doing what we did, and so powerful, what we did back in South Africa, which was: morally, you know, lift it up, [look?] at this great thing [at?] Hampshire, this moral standard that we, our power, and, you know, other schools have to move forward since Hampshire (03:57) and whether or not the administration of Hampshire, or everyone at Hampshire feels that that was what happened, the greater, um, I know I’m sure it’s been talked about in socially responsible investing statements, conversations, emails [ . . . . ]"

(04:18) “so I’m just curious if there was any of the time when you actually talked about that in relationship because [ . . . ] in February was the reason that, right after that vote, a lot of people from the school got a lot of backlash from the ADL and Alan Dershowitz and other people all of a sudden [ . . . . ] I know that’s a lot.”

Response by Jonathan Scott (04:44) “Alex, I hear your passion, and I appreciate it, having been a Hampshire student myself. And I think the best way to answer [. . . ] with respect to the decision to divest, I think that, as the Investment Committee, what CHOIR did elevated, the, made it clear, to me (I’m making that [statement] as an individual), that our policy was totally inadequate. And, so I think that it made us go back and say, ‘wow, we have an inadequate policy': Not only was it not up to date, it wasn’t clear, and it was the Policy and CHOIR and the Guidelines all together. So I for one have been really wanting this to be passed for some time. We’ve had other things going on on campus, having nothing to do with CHOIR, and I think, going forward, this policy is going to help inform the greater good of the College for what we’re doing. And it was a teachable moment for me, to get clarity on an issue—and I’m not speaking about the Israeli issue, I’m speaking about the clarity of the actual document itself. And that’s what we did, that’s what we’re speaking about today."

He goes on to explain how the College maintained its basic ethical investment strategy over the past three years by applying a particular licensed screen to an index fund.

"As far as—I guess the other thing that’s important, and we said it already–we have tried to maintain to the extent possible our belief in our core values all through the last three years."  He goes on to give details on the index funds and screens.

(07:39) “As far as the securities you named [i.e. the ones involved in the alleged divestment], sitting here [. . .] it’s hard to know what’s in or out of a fund on a given day, but as I said, [ . . . ] you’ll be able to see more" [when the new system is fully in place]

(07:55) Secretary of the College Beth Ward:
“I think there’s really an [inaudible] on the part of the College to have exactly those conversations, I mean not necessarily [inaudible] reference all of these per se, but really think about all of these political issues. I mean, it’s really hard to struggle with them, and you know, I think about South Africa and some of those [inaudible], and in some ways it seems like the world is kind of murky.”

(08:29) “focusing on companies is a very clarifying way to approach these policies, which does not in any way mitigate the need for us, you know, to [take on?] other issues.” We need to have conversations about politics.

(08:56) Ken Rosenthal (noting that he joined the Board just around the time of the controversy in 2009):  “What we discovered was: There had not been conversations on this campus as there should have been over a period of time, and so I think things, I think things exploded when, had we been talking about these issues regularly, we might have approached them in a more consistent and in a different way. And what we’re trying to do here is trying to reestablish a forum on this campus, a regular forum, where people can come, not feel frustrated, and can meet regularly [ . . . ] so that we can get the ideas out, we can consider them, and we can move, if necessary, quickly, to make changes. I don’t know that there will be changes that will always be necessary, but I do think conversation is necessary, especially because, especially because the tenure[s] of some of us go back many years, but for students, they may only be aware of these issues for one or two years and not be a- not appreciate that something may have been talked about three or four years ago or six or seven. We need to have those conversations regularly so people feel they’re a part ….”

(10:15) Marlene Fried: “I want to speak to the elephant. [ . . . ] I sort of came into this late, I was not the best informed or paying attention in 2008, but last year, I was paying a lot of attention [i.e. when, as interim President, she had to address the deteriorating climate on campus following the harassment of an Israeli student ( 1, 2) and the disruption of a talk by an Israeli soldier; JW], so it is very clear that there is a real divide between what the ‘buzz’ out there is about what Hampshire did or didn’t do, and about what the Board of Trustees of Hampshire College believes that it did, and there is clarity and unanimity on the Board that it did not make a decision to divest from the State of Israel, that it did not decide that Israel was in the same camp as South Africa.”

Student: “But it did say: Israel [sic] occupation, and the students on the Board did [use?] Israeli occupation, which is very different than Israel [ . . . ].”
They had been hoping that the Board would state that it broke the College's alleged ties to the occupation (or words to that effect).

(11:19) Fried: “The Board does not believe that it broke. And so, I guess the next thing is where will such conversations happen in the future, and I’m thinking it’s envisioned that CHOIR would a place where that will happen, and that’s why CHOIR is [inaudible; others break in]"

(11:36) Rosenthal: "And we hope it’s energized. We don’t want it just to be there waiting for somebody to call it to order, we want it to regularly say: we’re meeting, come talk to us."

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