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Oberlin College Board of Trustees rejects divestment proposal amidst lack of transparency

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Oberlin College’s Investment Office has rejected a proposal submitted by the campus club, Students for a Free Palestine, calling on the college to drop holdings in a number of corporations involved in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

In an e-mail dated 27 October 2015 Board Chair Clyde McGregor explained to current and former members of Students for a Free Palestine that “the Board closely reviewed every aspect of your proposal, via extensive discussions among members of the full Board, the Board’s Executive Committee, and a working group dedicated to assessing proposals for divestment.”

The 219-word email concludes: “Based on that careful examination, the Board has determined that your proposal will not be acceptable to the larger Oberlin community, based on the Board’s best understanding of the community’s opinion.  While the Board respects the support you have marshaled for your proposal from various quarters, it is clear that your proposal has also elicited strong opposition. Because your proposal therefore presents a divisive issue for the community, it does not meet at least one of the three conditions for divestment, and the Board is declining your proposal.”

No campus or community-based campaign publicly aimed to counter the divestment proposal. No members from the general Board, the Executive Committee, or the working group discussed the proposal with members Students for a Free Palestine. A representative of the Board of Trustees declined to respond when asked for further comment.

Though Oberlin’s Student Senate passed a divestment resolution submitted by Students for a Free Palestine in May 2013, the Board’s rejection of SFP’s divestment proposal indicates a watershed moment for campus-based BDS movements across the country: it represents what can happen when symbolic divestment resolutions are met with supposedly amenable college administrative frameworks.

To “Shock the Conscience”

Last fall, Oberlin College announced a new investment policy which, in part, evaluates corporate investments based on whether they support “activities that materially contribute to conditions that shock the conscience.”

The college’s actions, though symbolic, attempt to align with institutional advancements forged by student divestment activism in the past. Before the 1980s, investment policies at the higher-education level focused solely on choosing corporations which ensured maximal financial returns. In the late 1970s, U.S. students began organizing to limit economic support of South Africa’s apartheid government to answer black South African calls for international boycotts, divestment and sanctions of the white-minority-ruled nation.

Beginning with Hampshire College in 1977 and gaining national traction by the mid-1980s, student “disinvestment” initiatives on college campuses challenged, and changed, the established logic of foreign investment. In a then-confidential 1984 legal memo, University of Arizona board lawyer recommended investment policies including “moral and ethical considerations” by citing a range of legal cases including an Ohio student association lawsuit against an investment board. For the first time boards of directors began using human rights-based language in their corporate investment governance policies in order to stave off such popular public criticism.

As recent events show, Oberlin College is no exception to the rule established by the student-led movement.

Oberlin’s Office of Communications announced the Board’s new divestment policy through the college’s official website this past fall.  The announcement claims that the Board of Trustees implemented the policy (in addition to a responsible reinvestment policy called the Impact Investing Platform, or IIP) with the intention of making “the process of responsible investment and divestment collaborative and inclusive.” The divestment policy provides that the Board of Trustees will evaluate divestment proposals based on three nominally distinct criteria, including the potential for actual financial impact on the given targets for divestment and the level of acceptance on behalf of the greater Oberlin community.

Students for a Free Palestine submitted a divestment application on 12 February 2015. SFP submitted a subsequent application with time-specific revisions on 24 April, after members of Students for a Free Palestine were notified that neither the general Board nor the Investment Committee had reviewed the application. The 19-page application specifically discussed G4S, SodaStream, Elbit Systems, Veolia, Caterpillar, and Hewlett-Packard, companies that SFP claims represent a wide range of abuses both morally unjust and legally indefensible under international law.

Oberlin has been marked by vibrant and sometimes notorious BDS organizing over the past several years.  Oberlin’s student senate, a representative body made up of peer-elected student senators, passed a divestment resolution proposed by SFP in spring 2013, which targeted the same six companies addressed in the divestment application.

SFP attracted media attention twice this past academic year, most recently for an installation in which students hauled 1,000 pounds of rocks into the campus’ main library as an act of solidarity with then-imprisoned Palestinian student Lina Khattab.  In September, SFP planted over 2,100 black flags outside the administrative building to represent the Palestinian life lost during Operation Protective Edge.  This installation coincided with Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish High Holiday—sparking debate across campus.

SFP received widespread support across the Oberlin campus. By the end of the 2015 spring semester, 32 student organizations had signed a support statement for SFP’s divestment application. Two groups in particular—the Filipinx American Student Association and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellows 2015 Cohort—wrote letters to the editor of the Oberlin Review in support of SFP.

Members of Students for a Free Palestine believe the divestment policy has been anything but collaborative, and has been marked by a lack of transparency since its inception.

In an October 9 opinion editorial in The Oberlin Review, entitled “Board of Trustees Condones Violence,” SFP writes, “While we greeted the formalization of a divestment process with optimism, we have since been forced to question the true purpose of it…We have been told that an answer will come by a certain deadline, and each time, the deadline is pushed back. We are forced to ask: Is this transparency? How can this silence be called ‘dialogue?’”

A Lack of Transparency

SFP is not the only contingent questioning the intent behind the Board’s divestment proposal.

David Tisel, an Oberlin College alumnus and member of Oberlin Alumni for a Responsible Endowment (OARE), expressed mixed feelings about the Board’s endowment policies.  “It’s been exciting that certain administrators and members of the board have been willing to sit down with us to talk through our proposals for investing the endowment in socially conscious funds,” he explained.  “The problem has been that after we have seemingly productive meetings with administrators and board members, the process enters a sort of black box of bureaucracy. It’s hard to move from talk to action in that context of a lack of transparency.”

Despite some markers of progress—moving the annual student activity fund from big banks into local credit unions, establishing a responsibly invested fund for tuition assistance, and creating the aforementioned impact investing platform—the Board’s rejection of SFP’s divestment application raises questions of whether the ambiguous language characterizing the divestment policy itself is simply a cover for rejecting proposals that the Board deems politically disagreeable.

Daniel Gould, a former member of Students for a Free Palestine and current member of OARE, is also skeptical.  Although he believes the Board’s divestment policy is a result of SFP’s successful 2013 resolution, he realizes that such policies can pose a double bind for student activists.  “If Oberlin student groups don’t participate in the Board-sanctioned divestment process,” he explained, “they’ll be accused of not engaging and not taking advantage of a resource. So let’s say the groups do participate. If their cause—BDS is a perfect example—is already viewed with hostility by much of the board, then the process is going to be a steep uphill struggle. The proposal may destined for rejection from the outset. The group could then lose valuable energy and momentum by engaging in the official process.”

Gould continues: “If this kind of model spreads around the country (i.e. a board-sanctioned divestment proposal process), campus SJP organizers must be strategic on how to move forward. Issues like fossil fuel divestment seem to be heading somewhat closer toward mainstream acceptability. (Consider the Rockefeller Foundation’s recent announcement on fossil fuels.) But in the US political, academic and economic establishment, BDS is just not on the table. It’s practically a kind of heresy. It’s considered beyond the pale of ‘acceptable’ positions. Just look at the backlash that took place when the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli higher ed institutions. Presidents of more than 80 US colleges and universities condemned the vote. Bard College and Kenyon College even withdrew from the ASA.”

Oberlin Trustees: Hypocritical

Oberlin’s Board of Trustees is not immune to controversy itself.  In July, then-Investment Committee Chair Thomas Kutzen resigned from the Board after the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed charges against him and his hedge fund AlphaBridge Capital Management for inflating asset prices and overcharging investors.  Despite resigning and shutting down AlphaBridge, Kutzen—who over the course of his career has advised a range of financial institutions and built capital related markets in Asia—will reportedly continue to support Oberlin on a volunteer basis.

In an official statement released on July 12, Oberlin College claimed: “Having served with distinction for five years as Investment Committee Chair, Kutzen has rendered substantial service to Oberlin, having led the Investment Committee in improving Oberlin’s endowment performance and risk profile.”

It is unclear what role Kutzen served with regard to SFP’s divestment proposal; however, Kutzen is not the only Oberlin trustee under scrutiny.  Rather, students at Oberlin routinely describe their relationship with the Board as antagonistic.  Students have consistently commandeered Board forums in the past, often due to what many describe as the school’s lack of racial inclusivity.

Much of the student antipathy towards the Board also comes from the college’s financial inaccessibility.  A recent article in The Oberlin Review cited information from a September article in The New York Times that ranked Oberlin as the 132nd most financially accessible college in the country, and the least financially accessible among its peer schools. While Oberlin boasts a smaller endowment than most of its peer schools, Kenyon College, Connecticut College, and Wesleyan University—all of which have smaller endowment-per-student ratios than Oberlin—were ranked as more affordable by The Times.

What’s Next for Divestment?

Oberlin’s Board of Trustees’ rejection of SFP’s divestment application is unique. Whereas colleges and universities across the United States have overseen the passage of divestment resolutions and referendums over the past several years, the decision in question marks one of the only, if not first, instances in which a school’s Board of Trustees has formally rejected divestment from the Israeli occupation. The Board’s decision holds greater significance than the adoption or rejection of divestment resolutions by student governments. It demonstrates that despite the growing popularity of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement on college campuses, divestment from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation is still politically untenable, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

Surprisingly, however, the Board’s letter of rejection to SFP mentioned only the political inexpediency of divesting from corporations complicit in the occupation.  The Board did not, for example, indicate that divestment is financially untenable, or express doubt that a single school’s divestment could significantly affect the standing of a corporation complicit in continuous violations international law.

Most importantly, the Board did not explicitly contend with the political content of SFP’s divestment proposal (i.e., whether Israel’s military domination, occupation, and systemically undemocratic treatment of Palestinians does indeed “shock the conscience”). In effect, such framing de-politicizes Israel’s crimes while portraying their rejection solely according to the notion that not everyone on campus would be satisfied with divestment. By the logic presented by the Board, divestment can only occur when it is geared towards uncontroversial targets. Yet why would student organizations target uncontroversial corporations? Oberlin’s Board of Trustees seeks to construct a policy in which divestment becomes feasible only when it is wholly unnecessary.

What might all of this mean for campus-based organizations attempting to promote BDS in solidarity with Palestine? First and foremost, it indicates that material divestment will require more than simply illustrating student support: it will require the large-scale mobilization of both the student body and the surrounding community. While passing divestment resolutions and referendums have been and continue to be crucial in galvanizing support for Palestine at colleges and universities, student organizations must be careful that their efforts are not incorporated into bureaucratic and de-politicized administrative frameworks.

Students for Justice in Palestine chapters should strive for and celebrate symbolic support from a range of student organizations, but such support is meaningless if it is not reciprocated in concrete action. A more expansive understanding of solidarity—one that promotes the international framework of BDS and is also grounded in notions of community work, mutual aid, and political institution-building—is needed if real divestment from the occupation is to become a reality on college campuses across the country.

In broadening the scope of the BDS movement on campus, students can work to create better conditions not only for divestment, but for the realization of a truly radical and anti-imperialist set of practices.

Gabriel M. Schivone contributed reporting to this article concerning the history of student divestment activism, and assisted in editing.

About Jacob Ertel

Jacob Ertel is a writer and aspiring geographer based in New York City. His writings on gentrification, the US prison system, and social theory have been featured in online journals including CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, and The Hampton Institute. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and former member of Students for a Free Palestine.

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4 Responses

  1. CigarGod
    November 11, 2015, 10:54 am

    Thanks for a detailed view.

  2. Kris
    November 11, 2015, 11:43 am

    Excellent report, thank you!

    The students at Oberlin will no doubt continue this struggle, and in the process they will educate many more people about Israel/Palestine than they would have reached had the Oberlin Board of Trustees decided to divest now.

  3. JWalters
    November 11, 2015, 6:02 pm

    The BDS proposal is a “divisive issue” because of the gangsters who oppose it. Let the Board make public the SPECIFIC objections included in its decision making process, and WHO raised these.

    This is a temporary setback. The facts cannot be suppressed at colleges and universities forever. All these student organizations form an extremely important grass-roots force for justice. Now is not a time to get discouraged, it’s a time to keep hammering on the facts, on justice, and on the American ideals that SHOULD be determining America’s foreign policy.

  4. Rooster
    November 12, 2015, 12:29 am

    What politically worthwhile issue is not “divisive” at some level anyway? Any exploitative relationship will have those who support the exploiter at the expense of the exploited. And that shocks the conscience.
    There is NO meaningful political movement that has 100% support, and hence, by definition, isn’t to some degree politically “divisive.” It is the arbitrariness of that standard which should be attacked. That language is the equivalent of Oberlin saying, “We will divest as long as there is not a single voice, even unattributed, of protest.”

    As the peace “process,” Oberlin’s divestment “process” is designed to obfuscate and delay. To create the illusion of contemplation in order to propagate contempt.

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