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Money Talks: It's time to take responsibility for what we own

By Hannah M. Borowsky

Institutions of higher education espouse values such as service, integrity, equality, and global responsibility. They are the intellectual and moral leaders of our time. Yet, the ways in which these institutions of higher education, like our own, invest their money is currently irresponsible and unacceptable.

When you invest in a company, you own part of that company. And if you own something, you are responsible for it. Yet inconsistencies in the things we say we value and the things we invest in abound. This discrepancy is especially crucial as it applies to institutions of higher learning. It is essential that we recognize this and do something about the fundamental contradiction.

Harvard considers itself a leader in campus sustainability, and with good reason. With impressive LEED-certified buildings and a significant carbon reduction goal, Harvard has worked to make “Green the new Crimson.” But while its campus may be green, its portfolio is not. By investing its endowment in fossil fuel companies, Harvard sponsors global climate change. You’ll never hear President Faust say: “I support global warming that threatens the future of Harvard students.” If she did, the public would be appalled. But making investments in the fossil fuel industry sends that very message, and such a practice should elicit the same disgust.

Consciously sponsoring climate change is only one example of our university’s moral inconsistency. Harvard is a member of the Fair Labor Association, meaning it only grants use of the Harvard trademark to companies that meet fair labor standards. In this way, Harvard uses its brand to promote justice. Yet, at the same time, Harvard invests in Vale S.A., a Brazilian mining corporation given the Public Eye Award for most evil company in the world, due in part to its dismal treatment of workers.

Harvard’s investment in arms manufacturing offers yet another example of moral incongruity. According to research by the Harvard School of Public Health, places with more guns have more homicides. In the aftermath of the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Harvard faculty spoke out about the need for violence prevention efforts. For example, Masters of Adams House, Judith S. “Judy” ’67 and John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67, published an impactful piece in the New England Journal of Medicine on the topic.

But while members of the Harvard community use their research and positions of leadership to protect us from guns, Harvard continues to funnel money to arms manufacturers with its endowment. Harvard invests funds with the Vanguard Group, the largest stockholder in Smith & Wesson Holding Corporation, a leading U.S. gun manufacturer. In response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, all Vanguard had to say was “We believe that mutual funds are not optimal agents to address social change.’’

Investments in the fossil fuel industry, companies guilty of exploiting workers, and gun manufacturers all illustrate the misalignment between the values voiced by Harvard and the ownership it actually assumes through its investments.

Harvard is not alone in this practice. Ignorance and irresponsibility are ubiquitous when it comes to investing. Some will call me naïve: That this is just the way our system works. That a diversified portfolio is the key to success. That we can work to better the world in other ways.

This may be how our system works, but that doesn’t mean it’s the way it should work. We simply cannot afford to think of investments in a separate vein from morality any longer. We must not abandon the values we know to be true when it comes to making a profit.

This time might not be far away. I have so much hope for our generation.

Because of a campaign spearheaded by our classmates, beginning at the end of this year, donors will have the option of giving to Harvard’s social choice fund, which will be invested separately from the rest of the endowment in funds that meet specific criteria for social responsibility.

At the same time, the fossil fuel divestment movement, perhaps more than anything else, has illuminated our morally unacceptable investment patterns. Now students on over 250 campuses across the country are telling their administrations loudly and clearly, “If it’s wrong to wreck the planet, it’s wrong to profit off of that wreckage.”

How we make our money matters, and it shapes the kind of world in which we, ourselves, our children, and future generations will live. Money talks, and it’s time our institutions of higher education lead the way in using it to say what we mean.

Hannah M. Borowsky ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an organismic and evolutionary biology concentrator in Leverett House.

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