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Low interest threatens stability of student investment committee

This is the season when the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee (CRIC) normally researches the shareholder resolutions that the stock holdings of Carleton’s $663 million endowment entitle the school to influence. This year however, the campus may not have the opportunity to flex the muscles that Carleton’s corporate holdings represent. The CRIC was disbanded this winter due to lack of interest among its student members. There are some plans to reinstate the committee, but no definite arrangement has been made.

CRIC’s disbandment ironically follows what could be considered the organization’s greatest success. Along with researching shareholder resolutions, CRIC has always advocated making the contents of Carleton’s portfolio public. Carleton made enormous progress towards the goal of endowment transparency at CRIC’s last meeting last fall when Vice President Fred Rogers announced that his office’s website will quarterly publish a list of Carleton’s top ten holdings, and annually publish the complete portfolio.

But in addition to demonstrating CRIC’s success, the final CRIC meeting also showed students’ lack of commitment to the organization: of the four student members of the committee, only Alec Roman ’10 was present to hear Rogers’ announcement.

Poor student participation has plagued the CRIC for at least two years. Physics Professor Joel Weisberg, who left the committee at the end of last year, said that he resigned because last year’s students were not able to do the work the committee required. He was disappointed to see the same batch of students in the committee this year:

“I resigned in frustration that many students weren’t fulfilling their role on the committee, and was hoping that there would be a new slate of students this year; apparently there wasn’t.”

Economics Professor Pavel Kapinos, a member of CRIC this year, has said that continued lack of attendance this year led the committee to disband:

“It’s been an issue for a while. It started last year and this year we’ve consistently had attendance problems. The people who showed up at the last meeting decided it just wasn’t worth trying to carry on with such serious attendance issues.”

Serving on CRIC was a significant commitment that involved more than attending meetings. Students, staff and faculty were charged with finding shareholder resolutions that corresponded with Carleton’s values as determined by a campus survey conducted last spring. Committee members then prepared reports for the Board of Trustees, who make the ultimate decisions on Carleton’s shareholder voting.

Despite participation problems, the CRIC was successful with its shareholder resolutions in 2007. The committee chose seven resolutions to support, and for the first time in the CRIC’s history, all were approved by Carleton’s trustees. The resolutions went on to represent Carleton’s values in corporate shareholder meetings around the country. The seven resolutions ranged from a measure to hold Coca Cola to higher environmental standards in India to a resolution to bring transparency to executive pay structures at Wells Fargo.

The votes themselves are not very important because Carleton does not own nearly enough stock in these companies to directly affect official management policies. However, CRIC is part of a network of institutional endowment activists that together have the power to at least get the attention of companies like Coke and Wells Fargo. In 2002, a committee much like CRIC at Swarthmore College sponsored a shareholder resolution at Lockheed Martin calling for a company policy specifically banning discrimination based on sexual-orientation. The resolution received only 5.9% of the votes, but garnered enough national attention that Lockheed Martin agreed to adopt the anti-discrimination policy.
In 2007 the CRIC also played a large role in improving Carleton’s Sustainability Report Card by two letter grades. When the Cambridge-based Sustainable Endowments Institute reviewed Carleton in 2007, it gave the school a C- largely due to two F’s in Endowment Transparency and Shareholder Engagement. This year the school received a B and an A in these two categories. Moreover, comments about Shareholder Engagement specifically mentioned CRIC.

Between the presence of many social activism groups on campus and the importance of the CRIC to Carleton’s sustainable reputation there may be enough student support on campus for the group to become active again. Former committee member Hugh Cameron (’08) has said that he is already working to reestablish the organization. As for the committee’s nonstudent members, both Vice President Rogers and Professor Kapinos have agreed to return, provided that students demonstrate their commitment:

“A group of students would have to come forward who would be passionate about these issues and be willing to do the work on a sustained basis. . . . As far as faculty and staff are concerned I think we are willing to participate and do our work and bring our perspective,” said Kapinos.

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