Of Mouths and Money

The informational meeting about Middlebury’s endowment last week might have been more at home in a government intelligence agency than a liberal arts institution; non-answers and obfuscation ruled the afternoon. At one point, Investure “client relations” analyst and apparent sacrificial lamb Oliver Platts-Mills, clearly frustrated by the unexpected hostility sweeping through the packed auditorium assured the group of concerned students that “if there’s a company out there right now that you think is a good company, we own it.” Later, he defended himself by informing the bemused crowd that we’d all be super impressed with the companies in the endowment, if only he could tell us what they were. Next time I’m in a job interview or on a date, I think I’ll try a similar line and see how well it goes over.

Platts-Mills’ intransience certainly made our endowment sound mysterious, and that’s clearly unacceptable to the students who chose to attend Middlebury, pay tuition to Middlebury, and hope to one day donate ridiculous sums of money to Middlebury. I don’t suggest that we move our endowment or abandon the relationship with Investure that netted an 18 percent return on our money last year; Middlebury is clearly quite well-endowed.

The idea that we could switch all of our $800 million to “Socially Responsible” investments raises a number of practical concerns. I’m sure most students here would support investment in a corporation that devotes over a billion dollars a year to developing solar and wind technology, or a company spending over $600 million developing algae as a replacement for fossil fuels, or the corporation that runs a government lab that researches alternative energy, global warming, and hydrogen power. The problem is that these three examples refer to BP, Exxon, and Lockheed Martin, firms which many would consider the height of corporate evil. How, exactly, do we define a “Socially Responsible” company? Most successful corporations, from these examples to Apple or Google, have their plusses and minuses. But the intricacies of the market do not mean we don’t deserve more information. A Middlebury education is an extremely expensive product. Just like the food we eat and the textbooks we study from, we deserve to know the ingredients of our wealth.

I’m not sure why exactly the administration or Investure agreed to the meeting, since they seemed determined to provide little to no information about these ingredients. Perhaps at the next such meeting they’ll trot out an actual dog and pony in service of their agenda. Investure claims that they can’t give Middlebury students more information because of SEC oversight and danger to their bottom line. Both of these concerns are understandable, but there needs to be a way to give students a better idea of the financial interests of this institution. At the end of the meeting, I stood up to ask Platts-Mills a question. I wanted to know if there was any possible compromise; if we could, for example, see a list of Middlebury’s holdings from three years ago. It’s hard to imagine that this could jeopardize Investure’s business. In typical fashion for the meeting, the analyst demurred: “I just don’t know what you’d do with such a list.”

I’d love to read that list, Oliver. I’d like to see the name of every company and every fund that Middlebury’s money supported in the past, even if the law and markets prevent us from releasing our current holdings. And I know that I am not the only one. Maybe that list wouldn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. Maybe the list would make us proud of Middlebury and proud of where our money has gone. But maybe there would be some companies that Middlebury students would broadly agree are not acceptable. We have that right. And if you don’t agree, then we have the right to demand that the company that manages our money respects our shareholder rights better than Investure. Either way, we need more information to begin a deeper conversation about what we value more as a community—a high return to investment, responsible sources of income—or whether those two goals must remain mutually exclusive.

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