Written by AJ McDougall
Edited by Gavrielle Jacobovitz, Julian Shen-Berro
Art by Daniela Casalino
Photography by Elisabeth McLaughlin
Graphics by Xixi Wang
In December 2013, a Columbia administrator placed an envelope in a mailbox in Low Library. It was for a student who had left a voicemail a few days before, saying she was an urban studies student doing research and asking if she could look at Columbia’s direct investments. After all, it was for her thesis on development.
The student, Asha Ransby-Sporn—who graduated from Columbia College in 2016—brought the list to Students Against Mass Incarceration, which was running a campaign called Columbia Prison Divest.
On the list of Columbia’s publicly held, or direct, investments, in companies owned by public shareholders rather than their founders or a small group of private investors, the Corrections Corporation of America had about 8 million of Columbia’s dollars next to its name. Columbia had also apparently sunk $2 million into G4S, an international security firm with a record of torture. CPD immediately launched a campaign for Columbia’s full divestment from private prisons and a freeze on all future investments.
A year and a half later, the administration caved to demands.
Why lie to the administration? Ransby-Sporn and other members of CPD had heard through the activist grapevine—talking to friends and fellow organizers who had tried to get their hands on it before—that this list of direct holdings was difficult to obtain. Not impossible, they were told, but accessing those documents was such a trial of switchbacks and murky bureaucracy—that is, if they didn’t graduate before they even reached that second stage.
“I feel a hundred percent confident had we said, ‘Oh, this is Students Against Mass Incarceration, and we want to know about the University’s investments,’ or we’re student activists, that things wouldn’t have happened the way they did,” Ransby-Sporn says.
The Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, the group through which CPD successfully negotiated divestment from private prisons in 2015, is drawn from the Columbia community’s students, faculty, alumni, and administrative staff. They advise Columbia’s Board of Trustees on the ethics of Columbia’s investments, regarding where it is and isn’t morally feasible to put our endowment money.
CPD went to them with a careful proposal. ACSRI recommended the gist of it to the University: Sell the shares we own in G4S and CCA. The trustees concurred and made Columbia the first university in the country to divest from private prisons—proof that the system worked. But this is oversimplifying things.
ACSRI was created by students, for students, to make institutional investment at Columbia more transparent. But the group is perceived by some organizers to be the opposite—a stonewall, rather than a conduit, to changing the already delicate makeup of the endowment—leading them to seek divestment through other channels. Even though ACSRI has recommended divestment from a number of sectors, a rift has emerged between it and the students that it’s supposed to represent.
Terms of Endowment
ACSRI was formed in the shadow of the new millennium. Just as the city was starting to shake off winter, Gretchen Garnecho, a sophomore at Barnard in 2000, joined her campus’s environmental club, EarthCo.
In between tallying how many recycling bins were on each floor of every dorm, members pestered their teachers, phoned every student they could look up in the directory, and spent hours knocking on dorm doors. Wouldn’t it be great if Columbia’s public mission was reflected in its investment strategy?
They took this idea, with one ACSRI each for Columbia and Barnard, to the trustees. It went so well that one of the board members chased Garnecho down the block afterward and offered her a job.
ACSRI has remained consistent in its policies and makeup over the last two decades, Anne Sullivan and Merritt Fox, ACSRI’s current non-voting administrative supervisor and chair, respectively, told The Eye. Later, Sullivan characterized the Committee as a “very deliberate body:” “They take their role very seriously,” she says, “I think, feel the weight of being representative of the broader university community.”
ACSRI, sometimes pronounced one letter at a time, sometimes all-together and phonetically (AKS-REE, like a weird sneeze), was one of the first of its kind in the country. The Committee can only make recommendations on the ten percent of the endowment called direct holdings—which is about a billion dollars. The list of these investments, filed away in Low Library, doesn’t often see the light of day—that CPD managed to walk it out of the building is a fluke. Both Columbia Divest for Climate Justice and Columbia University Apartheid Divest were allowed into Low to look at Columbia’s direct holdings, but unlike CPD, they weren’t allowed to take the list out of the room or even make a copy of it.
Some of the principles ACSRI was founded upon are carved in stone. Divestment has alternatives like engaging with company management directly, for example. Proxy voting—agreeing or disagreeing with another shareholder’s formal demand to a company—is done in the spring by ACSRI and could include asking management to produce an annual report on carbon emissions, or investigate unfair hiring practices. But to bring out the big guns, to divest, you’ve got to prove three criteria. Is there broad consensus on campus about the issue? Does morality clearly lie on one side of the argument? And is divestment a better option than communicating or otherwise engaging with the company?
Sullivan and Fox say that financial considerations don’t factor into ACSRI’s decisions, but the Committee tries to be practical about standing behind every action they want to take. “How would you sustain something as a process?” Sullivan asks, “Could we screen for it?”
Some examples of what ACSRI has accomplished by recommendation include full divestment from South African apartheid, tobacco companies, most countries with business in South Sudan, and from private prisons. Partial divestment from fossil fuels—specifically, thermal coal producers. “To be able to participate in these committees, or to advocate for something in front of these committees, and to have those ideas related to people who really are in positions of significant power to have them implement them” says Garnecho, who was one of Barnard ACSRI’s first student members before the group was mothballed a few years ago, “is incredible.”
ACSRI set out to translate Columbia’s investments for students, no matter how basic your financial literacy. They consider all proposals brought to them by the student community, not just divestment ones. But they are not a decision-making body, nor an initiative-taking one.
The first question Stephen Christensen, a representative on the Committee from 2014 to 2016, asked on his first day on ACSRI was, ‘How can we be holding all of these corporations responsible?’ Don’t worry, they told him, they weren’t even going to try to do that. They were focused on what students brought to the Committee. But what happens if this student-driven model isn’t used by students?
President Lee Bollinger, stone-faced in a lime-green jogging shirt, jogged past a student carrying a little cardboard sign. “PrezBo, don’t run from climate change!” the student yelled.
Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, which used to be Barnard Columbia Divest, began its campaign for fossil fuel divestment in the fall of 2012. Just after protesting Bollinger at that year’s annual Fun Run, they took their divestment presentation to ACSRI in November 2013. It took the Committee five months to reject it.
Three years later, almost no progress had been made. “We felt that the ACSRI was really moving at such a snail’s pace with [fossil fuel divestment] that we wanted to bring our demands, and the urgency of the work that we were doing, straight to the president,” Elana Sulakshana, who graduated from Columbia in 2017, says.
Sulakshana remembers that CDCJ’s interactions with Bollinger had their own politics to them, as the President didn’t seem interested in strongly advocating divestment on the group’s behalf. But it felt to her like President Bollinger was more willing to make things happen than ACSRI—he agreed to meet with a small coalition of them, often dressed to the nines in suit jackets and knee-length dresses, multiple times in spring 2015.
On October 14, 2015, six members of CDCJ filed into one of Faculty House’s function rooms. The buttery lighting illuminated the presenters, Rachel Fifi-Culp, Michael Glendinning, Daniela Lapidous, Iliana Salazar-Dodge, Mikayla Petchell, and Amy Wang, as they explained that CDCJ wouldn’t accept anything less than full divestment. That renewable energy would never have a level playing field until fossil fuels were taken out of the equation. And that CDCJ would launch a full civil disobedience campaign if they were rejected.
A month and three days later, ACSRI published their response. The Committee rejected CDCJ’s proposal. Instead, they recommended that “in light of grave threats posed by climate change,” President Bollinger appoint a new committee to “formulate a Plan of Action that contemplates engagement across the University.”
CDCJ posted on their Facebook page: “BREAKING: IN FACE OF GRAVE THREAT OF CLIMATE CHANGE AND PEOPLE DYING FROM CLIMATE INJUSTICE, COMMITTEE PROPOSES CREATION OF NEW COMMITTEE.” A Neil deGrasse Tyson meme accompanied it, throwing his hands in the air—“Watch out Guys, we’re dealing with a badass over here.”
Organizers from both CDCJ and CPD were often quoted in Spectator and Bwog as intensely frustrated with ACSRI. “It feels like we're doing a lot of work without them taking us seriously as people who they are working with,” one member of CPD said. The Committee was a “PR-friendly institutional barrier between students and … the Board of Trustees,” CDCJ wrote.
In a video published around the same time that CDCJ was reeling from ACSRI’s second rejection, Asha Ransby-Sporn sits at a table outside with Ella Every-Wortman and Dunni Oduyemi (a former editor at The Eye), explaining that ACSRI may have actually made things harder for organizers.
CPD met with the alumni activists who organized the eighties’ South Africa apartheid divest movement to strategize. “Every tactic that [the apartheid protesters] used, there’s now some rule, or some committee, or something that the University has put in place that makes it more complicated to organize,” Ransby-Sporn says in the video. Oduyemi nods knowingly; Every-Wortman crinkles her nose and looks at the person holding the camera—can you believe it?
Four years later, some student organizers still have the same opinion. “If you have a body that was designed to frustrate student activists, it has definitely succeeded in doing its job,” Sofia Petros, a former CDCJ organizer and graduating senior, says.
“The Committee never wants to meet, the Committee never wants to talk to you. They never respond to your emails,” she later adds.
Members of both CPD and CDCJ talked to The Eye in 2014 about how the Committee’s inaccessibility fueled their own confusion. “I think it’s kind of used as this deflection tool around the real power-holders and decision-makers in the administration,” Sulakshana says.
I mention what’s said in the 2014 article to Christensen, who graduated from the School of the Arts in 2015 (he became an alumni rep his second year). “I think that’s an accurate but negative interpretation of the ACSRI.”
In theory, student activists and ACSRI understand what drives each other’s motivations. In practice, though, they speak different languages. “You had students yelling, ‘This has to happen.’ ... You had ACSRI saying, ‘We absolutely cannot say this.’” Sara Minard, says of her time on ACSRI as a faculty member from 2012 to 2014. “It just wasn’t a very useful process.”
But students and the school also operate on different timelines. Students have four short years to affect change on a University that’s been around for more than two hundred and fifty. Students aren’t always able to understand the slow moving institution’s perspective, Minard explains. They’re just in and out too fast.
This ‘revolving door’ makes it difficult for students to affect any kind of change before graduation. “The students are only here for so long,” Christensen says. “...And the Committee’s sort of always going to be there, whether or not it’s shedding people, and growing new people.”
There’s a sense among some student activists that Columbia simply waits students out. ACSRI, according to Caroline Oliver, a CUAD organizer, makes students “feel like there’s somebody out there who theoretically would listen to them.”
“But once you actually go there, there’s nothing there,” she says.
Sinead Hunt is a member of the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive campus think tank, who’s spearheading the initiative to reinstate Barnard’s ACSRI. She wonders if she’ll succeed. “That’s why we’ve been recruiting freshmen; we have a bunch of freshmen on our initiative in case it doesn’t get done before I graduate … I’m a junior. That’s a very scary thought.”
Despite the fact that ACSRI has a permanent administrative supervisor, Sullivan, to keep initiatives consistent from year to year, the Committee felt the effects of the revolving door, too. ACSRI members are supposed to serve two-year terms. But despite the free dinners—Klaar De Schepper, an ACSRI student rep from 2009 to 2011, remembers fabric napkins—the job sometimes isn’t worth the amount of research and debate prep. “What happens is that you run into turnover issues with the Committee, too,” Christensen says. “Well, everyone has to vote, everyone wants to be educated on this issue, so now we have to do it all over again. And by the time we get to the end of that cycle, some other people have left the Committee.”
Vetting a proposal takes a long time, Sullivan stresses—she empathizes with those who are trying to navigate this lengthy undertaking. She adds, however, this is necessary for the Committee to make an informed recommendation.
ACSRI understands its role as a conductor of student voices to the administration. “We don’t dictate where the money goes,” Jack McGourty, chair of ACSRI until 2013, said at a town hall in 2009. “We serve as your voice.”
“I don’t believe that’s their true function,” Ransby-Sporn says. “The University has financial incentives and motives, and it’s against those interests to create too many restrictions around what they will and will not invest in.” Sulakshana felt that ACSRI wouldn’t recommend anything that might “freak the board [of trustees] out.”
ACSRI denies this. “The reason for divestment has got to be a social reason,” Fox explains. “The return [on investment] aspect is not our focus. We’ve got professionals who manage the portfolio who are smarter than we are about those questions. So again, social factors.”
The Columbia Coalition Against the War, a now-defunct student group, followed the administration’s golden rule—go through ACSRI. So they took it to the Committee in 2007, demanding that the more than four million dollars the University had invested in weapons producers like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics be liquidated immediately. By September 2010, nothing had been decided concretely, and a subcommittee of ACSRI members including De Schepper was formed in order to address the issue. She remembers being frustrated that it was taking so long. “I just thought, you know, cluster munitions—who’s going to say ‘yes’ to that?”
Students weren’t the only ones chafing against ACSRI’s inertia. “Even then, [ACSRI] was a hard nut to crack,” Lisa Sachs says of 12 years ago, when she was a SIPA student. She now directs the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (unaffiliated with ACSRI).
“It didn’t seem like it was part of this progressive approach to improving the University’s understanding of ethical and socially responsible investing,” Sachs later adds.
Besides the tangibility of divestment, student organizers say they want accountability. “Students were calling on the administration, on the University, to align its endowment with the values that it purported to have,” Elana Sulakshana, the CDCJ organizer, says, “around sustainability, around equity, around racial justice.”
Voting and Vetting
Apparently, groups of nuns are as likely to file a shareholder resolution as they are to share a prayer together. Colleges across the United States have a worse track record. No one from Columbia has ever filed, or even co-filed, a resolution—a recommendation or request made by an investor, voted on by all shareholders. Filing a resolution is one of the most direct ways of engaging with unethical company management.
In 2014, a member of ACSRI told Spectator that the fact that they have never filed a resolution “has a lot to do with the fact that the Committee seems more set up to deal with the proxy voting process” than anything else. Proxy voting allows you to add a voice against a company’s practices, but not create a conversation.
Part of the reason for its glacial pace is that Columbia’s ACSRI funds its own research on these proxies in order to fully understand the implications of their decisions. “We’ll get expert analyses of these hundreds and hundreds of pages of briefings—which definitely not everybody reads.” Christensen laughs. “I did though... I thought it was kind of fun.”
“They really do make a concerted attempt to review these proposals, to fact-check, to look at sources, to look at what peer institutions are doing,” Hunt says.
“The bar for divestment is very high,” Christensen notes. “If divestment is suggested, there’s a lot of inbuilt pressure for the Trustees to agree.” As a result, when ACSRI recommends an action to the Trustees, “I can’t think that they ever disagreed with any of our arguments.”
Divestment is an uphill battle; critics have proven that it isn’t exactly a wallop to the company—the action lacks financial muscle in execution. Back in 2013, CPD discovered that Columbia held 220,000 shares of stock in G4S, the private security firm. This number represented approximately 0.015% of G4S’ market cap at the time; thus, Columbia’s sale of the shares wouldn’t have affected G4S or CCA at all.
CPD had no illusions about this, Ransby-Sporn says. “But the point is to contribute to a broader movement and strategy and climate, in which it’s a socially toxic thing to be invested in a prison.”
The logic behind divestment is simple: If a thing is morally wrong, then making money off of that thing is also wrong. It’s not about driving a company into the ground because you sold your ownership in it; it’s about stigmatizing the idea of investing in that company and snowballing that into a larger movement against the company’s bad practices.
The financial world is slowly acclimating to the idea that you don’t have to be morally bankrupt to make money. But it’s taking time, says Sachs. Other schools have adopted more progressive measures. “You have a responsibility as the owner of shares to be engaging, to change [a company’s] behavior, and the University doesn’t do that.”
CUAD claims this is because Barnard and Columbia are corporations before they are academic institutions. “Given the enormity of its endowment, they’re bound to the fiduciary duty that they have to their investors,” Nas Abd Elal, another organizer with CUAD, says.
But socially responsible investing and profit margins aren’t mutually exclusive, others told me. “It’s not that hard to actually make investments with this level of commitment to ethics, values, the environment,” Minard says. “Humans are pretty amazing … They will figure it out. Particularly when money is on the line.”
Behind the Paywall
In ACSRI’s early days, Garnecho and the students from Socially Responsible Investing would go around to student groups and advertise the Committee and its next public meeting date, where ACSRI could explain students’ proposals to them in the context of what the Committee knew.
Full divestment isn’t possible; there’s only a handful of tight-lipped people who know exactly what money is lodged where. It’s not ACSRI’s job to save Columbia from moral bankruptcy, Christensen says. “ACSRI is not your partner in the sense that they aren’t taking—as an institutional body—an activist stand with you … It’s vetting [your] arguments.”
ACSRI’s recommendations are a matter of public record. But the process by which they get to any of their decisions is more opaque. The Committee used to host two open town halls per year. The last time they advertised publicly for this meeting was 2009. In September 2011, McGourty explained to new members of the Committee that the town halls “had outgrown [their] usefulness and had been replaced with open meetings.” By September 2012, McGourty introduced, in lieu of the open meetings, the idea of an education and outreach subcommittee to handle communications and organize events.
The Committee gradually began seeing town halls as unproductive, Sullivan tells The Eye. “It didn’t lend itself to much of a dialogue,” she says. The Committee now engages with students on what Sullivan earlier referred to as an “issue-specific basis.” To Sullivan, this provides members time to educate themselves before a meeting. Anyone can still ask for some of the Committee’s time at a meeting, if they submit a written proposal.
“There’s still the open door, if you will, so that anyone who would have been interested in coming to a town hall can make a proposal to the ACSRI,” Sullivan says. “But now hopefully, if we’re going to open it up for broader university participation, we can do that once the ACSRI is a little bit more informed.”
But ACSRI appears to have sealed itself off from its community more than most other committees that relies on student input. All four undergraduate student councils livestream their weekly meetings—often held in large, nearly empty rooms. The University Senate holds monthly plenaries open to anyone with a CUID.
ACSRI posts their minutes—short, condensed summaries of internal minutes—online. These minutes can run as long as three pages, or be less than half a page, for meetings that usually last about 90 minutes. The Senate, which has meetings lasting approximately as long, hires an outside service to transcribe all of their meetings in excruciating detail for public consumption.
However, no other Ivy League committee publishes their minutes publicly. Cornell and Princeton have no organized group for socially responsible investing at all.
Details in Columbia’s documents are mostly scant; in their most recently uploaded minutes, one section reads, in full, “Due to new information, the Committee revisited and approved the list with one exclusion.” Often, if an expert is invited to present at a closed meeting, ACSRI writes that “a question and answer period followed,” with no elaboration.
ACSRI’s annual reports, on the other hand, are heavily detailed. Abd Elal appreciates being able to track whether something like the South Sudan non-investment list is active from year to year. But the minutes make it difficult for her and CUAD to be effective; not knowing what the nuances of ACSRI’s discussions “makes it hard to even make it a point of advocacy.” If they don’t know how far a parallel campaign has progressed with the Committee, they risk running over each other.
The answer to who, exactly, chooses the four graduate or undergraduate students, from any of Columbia’s twenty schools, to sit on ACSRI varies slightly depending on who you ask and where you look.
There’s the official answer on ACSRI’s website: students are “nominated through student government organizations.” The CCSC told me that they have no existing relationship with the Committee, and pointed to the University Senate. University spokesperson Robert Hornsby told Spectator in 2014 that “students are nominated by the Senate” as well. And in the annual report that the Committee produces: students “are nominated … [by] the Student Affairs Committee of the University Senate.”
The problem is that none of these answers, according to this year’s SAC chairs, are the truth.
“SAC has absolutely zero involvement in choosing who ends up on ACSRI,” Kira Dennis, the fall Barnard Senate representative, says.
James Piacentini and Art Benoit, in GSAPP and the Business School, respectively, back her up. The chairs say they use the Senate’s massive listservs to disseminate the application form, “effectively one email a year,” Piacentini says.
“SAC then gets back the applications, and give over the nominees to ACSRI. And ACSRI makes the final decisions. They conduct the interviews,” Dennis adds.
As far as she knows, Sullivan says, the University Senate conducts initial student interviews and passes on selected candidates, though she doesn’t have any involvement with this. “Really, what we’re tasked with, after we get the names ... [is to] balance the representation on the Committee, undergraduate and graduate.”
This year, all four of ACSRI’s student representatives are Columbia College students. Sullivan and Fox acknowledge that this is unusual. All four students declined to comment, or did not respond to a request to interview in time for publication.
The general student body knows even less. To them, it seems that ACSRI makes little tangible effort to reach out or report back on their activities to the student population. “Neither as a student or faculty have I felt like this Committee is reaching out to their constituencies to get input in, to ensure that voices are heard,” Lisa Sachs comments. “They, of course, can be doing more.”
"No more games, no more talk / Columbia, dump your prison stock!"
A student in a backpack leaned into the microphone to ask a question. It was April 4, 2014. President Bollinger was at a panel on slavery and American universities, not speaking, but sitting in the front row; the question was directed at him. What could he do, right now, to move the money that Columbia has invested in a private prisons and racialized systems of abuse?
“The important thing to say is that there’s a process that’s been set up for a long time,” Bollinger responded, playing with the lining of his jacket pocket. He meant ACSRI, and went on: ”You really have the opportunity to make your case in this process … I am thrilled that you have raised a number of questions that make people like me feel uncomfortable.” The room laughed.
CPD tried their best to refuse to be sidelined, even when they felt they were being undermined. They sent Bollinger a letter in April 2014. Private prisons warranted “more than just research, more than presentations behind closed doors,” they wrote. Constantly campaigning, they ended the semester on a high, feeling they were ready to push the issue more with ACSRI in the fall.
But in November, CPD walked into Faculty House and were met with eight new faces. Only a third of ACSRI had remained through the summer. Most committee members, including all four student representatives, had finished their two-year terms and been replaced. Anne Sullivan told CPD at the time that, unfortunately, this would mean essentially starting from scratch.
“Some of that is the nature of the beast,” Sullivan says. “I think that that level of turnover was unusual.” She adds that the complex nature of prison divestment, in particular, triggered the need to thoroughly educate ACSRI’s new members.
When students see bureaucratic processes failing to progress, they may start to peel away. Oliver says students may turn to more extreme methods—they give up or graduate, or get creative.
“If something becomes troublesome enough, then it’s dealt with,” De Schepper tells me now. “It needs to be annoying.”
In October 2014, three members of CPD unveiled a big, black sign over Schermerhorn Hall’s balcony: “MEET WITH US.” Protesters carried signs calling CPD’s action “eight months overdue”—as in, it had been that long since their first call to President Bollinger for a meeting without a response.
Bollinger, on his way to teach a class, walked in and up to Oduyemi, who stood next to the door to his classroom. He stopped to speak with her, quietly. She asked him for a meeting. He said, “We’ll set it up,” nodded once and ducked inside.
But time works differently inside the Committee, Stephen Christensen says. It’s standard to take years. “Unless you have a really, really solid case, which the prison divestment [group] did. The fact that it only took a year in bureaucracy time? That’s amazing. It was a slam-dunk case from the beginning.”
After two years of campaigning and discussion, CDCJ felt stifled by the Committee. “It’s kind of funnel set up, but on the flip side, you can also think about [ACSRI] as a way to stall student demands, to dilute them, to slow down any sort of process,” Sulakshana recounts. “To put barriers between them and higher-up administrators like the president and the Board of Trustees.”
So CDCJ escalated their tactics. Iliana Salazar-Dodge, a CDCJ organizer at the time, told Spectator in 2017 that this meant, “taking up space in order to have your voices heard regardless of whether we have permission to do it.”
This type of action was considerably more dangerous; when British Petroleum reps came to campus, CDCJ made it known to them that they weren’t welcome in Columbia’s endowment. The Office of University Life used a video to launch a Rules of Conduct investigation into organizers identified at the protest.
Two months later, in April 2016, more than five dozen protesters walked calmly into Low Library and refused to leave. The building shut down around them as they dealt with the administration, which flip-flopped back and forth as the president extended an offer for a meeting, and Suzanne Goldberg threatened the students with suspension.
Sulakshana considered applying to ACSRI around this time. She ultimately decided against it. “I thought I would never be chosen if I were to apply, because I was so publicly associated with CDCJ,” she says. Sofia Petros did apply, but was never called in for an interview. She thinks that ACSRI recognized her name.
When ACSRI rejected CDCJ’s proposal in 2015, they added that they would be open to considering more targeted divestment proposals. They didn’t receive one and began formulating their own divestment proposal for tar sands, as well as a screening process for climate change denialism called “Stand Up For Science,” something that Sullivan calls “a piece of thought leadership.”
Neither policy was ever submitted to the Board of Trustees—ACSRI became concerned about maintaining its role as a body that vets recommendations rather than independently creating its own, according to Sullivan. ACSRI quietly dropped both when Earth Institute Faculty sent in a proposal based around thermal coal, which the Committee narrowed and put forward to the Board.
This divestment, from companies that derive more than 35% of their revenue from thermal coal, was in February 2017, nearly four years after CDCJ’s first presentation.
CDCJ is no longer active, according to former member Sofia Petros. After three major lead organizers left last year, “those of us who were left essentially said, ‘Are we going to try to continue to build something that’s half-dead?’”
ACSRI hasn’t received any student proposals this year, according to Sullivan and Fox.
“We have a procedure, and not very many people actually have been using that,” Fox says. “I’m not quite sure, if they have concerns, why they aren’t making proposals.”
Unlike in 1968, there isn’t a student counter-protester group brutishly yelling slogans at SRI protesters in 2019. SRI and divestment are, to most people, incredibly boring.
“Transparency, accountability, fiduciary responsibility—those aren’t sexy topics. So no one wants to talk about how to create efficacious, fair, and transparent avenues,” Hunt notes. “...I hope that our [Barnard] students have an ACSRI, and they actively use that resource to kind of advocate for social change, and advocate for social responsibility.”
Past ACSRI members told The Eye they volunteer their time to the Committee out of a sense of duty or even love for socially responsible investing. But from a standpoint of student activism, it just looks like they’re there as a speed bump, or even roadblock, to progress.
ACSRI’s reputation among student organizers, lends itself to a negative feedback cycle that hinders the main thing it set out to do—listen and work with students who are expected to listen and work with it in return.
If doors are closed on student activists at Columbia, they might knock politely, pick the lock, or burn it down. ACSRI, on the other side of the door, has more influence over investing responsibility than anyone else at Columbia.
“When you look at our portfolios, and you think of how much money our schools have, and you think of our reputation, right?” Gretchen Garnecho says. “We have the potential to do some real good. And I hate the thought we might be squandering that.”
“I guess you could ask the question about whether it’s worth mending the relationship with the administration, but at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s going to be particularly productive,” Abd Elal says.
Later in the interview, she asserts: “We’re not going to spend our time saying, ‘Abolish the ACSRI, and give us something better!’”
CUAD has been turned away entirely from engaging with ACSRI for some time, working with student government groups on their divestment campaign instead. Abd Elal and Oliver say that ACSRI might be an option in the distant future, but, at least for the present, their hopes are secured more with other students than the administration.
But other groups have changed tactics more recently. Last year, members of Roosevelt Institute at Columbia tried to untangle the University’s tax returns in an effort to uncover any information on hidden, indirect holdings. In April 2018, ACSRI, in no uncertain terms, rejected Roosevelt’s request to disclose Columbia’s investment managers and strategies, citing worries over losing competitive advantages.
Frustrated, Roosevelt turned its focus across the street. Barnard’s ACSRI has been inactive for years. “It eventually fizzled out,” Tamar Dayanim, one of Barnard’s Student Government Association’s two representatives to the Board of Trustees, tells me. Barnard’s movement for their own Committee is steadily gaining traction. This push includes a few key differences from Columbia’s ACSRI—student representatives would be democratically elected, like those of student government, and meetings would be open to the public.
“Students are actually passionate about this,” Hunt says. “If you have an ACSRI, not only will students want to serve on it, but students will submit proposals to it.” If no one else, she adds, Roosevelt will. Despite precedent across the street and the country, Dayanim and Hunt have hope.
Members of Roosevelt asked Barnard’s SGA to sign a public letter of support for an ACSRI just this past Monday. The next step, they said during the meeting, will be to take the proposal and its support directly to the Board of Trustees.
So far, though, Hunt has been unable to consult with Columbia on forming Barnard’s Committee. “I would love to talk to them,” she says of ACSRI. “Sometimes it seems like their proceedings are a bit shrouded in mystery.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article included quotes that failed to meet Spectator’s editorial standards. These quotes, now removed or corrected, included one instance of information given off the record as well as one instance of misattribution. The article also placed quotations from different segments of interviews next to one another without indicating the proper distance between them. These quotes have all since been amended. Following its initial publication, the original version of the article was taken down in order to address and fix these errors. This version reflects these changes. Spectator and The Eye regret these errors.
Enjoy leafing through our first issue!
Students call on Barnard SGA to endorse ACSRI in letter to trustees
by Heather Loepere and Marianna Najman-Franks