Potential Committee Will Vet RIT Endowment
by Kasey Mathews | published Dec. 1st, 2017
Evan Zachary, a fifth year Environmental Sustainability, Health and Safety major and Chair of Student Government's (SG) Sustainability Committee, is currently in the process of drafting legislation that proposes the institution of a Socially Responsible Investment Advisory Committee (SRIAC) at RIT. He is now working to help others better understand both the path that led him here, as well as what exactly this proposed Advisory Committee aims to do.
During his work in sustainability, Zachary found that there is little to no data on where RIT invests its endowment, and the social, ethical, governance and environmental impacts of those investments. Frustrated, he began looking at other universities’ solutions.
“Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, there were plenty of really smart things that other campuses were already doing," Zachary said. "So, I decided to emulate and took to the internet to see what was up.”
The path forward, however, wasn’t always crystal clear. Zachary’s original plan was to encourage divestment from fossil fuels. However, after speaking with faculty and staff, including Enid Cardinal, senior sustainability advisor to the president, he found that RIT’s divestment from fossil fuels, while highly symbolic and a potential source of pride, would be little more than a drop in the bucket for large companies such as ExxonMobil, and would simultaneously raise costs on campus. That’s not to say the faculty and staff weren’t supportive of Zachary’s ambition; rather, they encouraged him to find a more economically sustainable and socially impactful solution.
Zachary was undeterred. Upon Cardinal's encouragement, he began looking at RIT's peer institutions and the actions they have taken to find a more viable and permanent solution. Out of those, he found nine had investment advisory committees, with a tenth being rallied for at the University of Rochester. Zachary then looked at Columbia University’s program, which was founded in March 2000. Their advisory committee is one of the best-established and most well-documented of its kind in the nation, making Columbia a perfect benchmark going forward.
Borrowing some of the language from Columbia’s committee charter, Zachary worked with faculty and staff to draft a resolution and bring it before SG for their input. SG was, Zachary admits, “supportive but ... hesitant.” This is new terrain for them. They typically advocate for everyday student needs and work with departments on campus such as Housing, Dining and Facilities Management that have a direct impact on the day-to-day life of students on campus. This proposed committee goes far beyond the standard approach of SG. That said, SG accepted the charge to create an Investment Advisory Committee. The official proposal, currently still in draft, states:
"SRIAC will serve as an advisory Committee to the Endowment Subcommittee of the Board of Trustees on ethical, social, and governance issues and will ... make recommendations to the University Trustees on issues related to investments in the University's endowment, including but not limited to the exercise of the University's proxy-voting rights, shareholder initiatives, and portfolio screening ..."
Essentially, this committee will review the allocation of RIT's endowment to make and ensure that they are socially and environmentally responsible, as well as advocate for changes to purchasing if they determine that this is not the case.
This committee will review the the allocation of RIT's endowment to ensure that they are socially and environmentally responsible, as well as advocate for changes to purchasing if they determine that this is not the case.
Zachary worked with Dr. James Watters, the senior vice president of Finance and Administration at RIT, to gauge the feasibility of such a committee. Zachary notes that he didn’t bring out any documents or specific proposals to Watters, but rather the two largely spoke theoretically.He took both compliments and criticisms from Watters to heart. Zachary then looked into the group’s resistance to turnover in order to guarantee its longevity, as well as how the committee will manage its scope.
According to the current language of the resolution, there will be nine voting members of the committee. Two will be students, two faculty, two staff, two members from RIT’s Board of Trustees and one RIT alum. Additionally, there will be two non-voting ex-officio members of the committee that will oversee the committee and ensure its longevity. These would be the RIT senior sustainability advisor, currently Enid Cardinal, and RIT’s director of Endowment Accounting and Cash Management, currently Ken Buckley. Zachary noted that the makeup of this committee is open to change as the resolution is finalized, but that his main goal is to include representation from all levels at RIT.
He then began working on managing the scope of the committee — how much it aims to regularly accomplish. RIT makes thousands of investments, and it would be impossible to individually assess each and every one to gauge its social impacts. Again, the resolution is still incomplete and the specific details will likely be subject to further changes.
When asked how the student body can get involved with the proposed committee, Zachary mentioned that the SRIAC would release an annual report in one semester (either spring or fall) and hold an annual town hall in the other. Students would have access to the former and be able to voice their concerns during the latter. Zachary admitted, however, that the operations of this committee would be largely behind-the-scenes and distanced from the typical RIT student.
At the time of writing, Evan Zachary was slated to have another talk with Watters on Nov. 16. At this meeting, Zachary planned to present Watters with the resolution and work with him on specifics. After this meeting, Zachary would amend the resolution and present it to SG again, who would then vote to either continue the editing process or approve the resolution and support it going forward. Once the resolution is passed by SG it will still have to go through more steps and levels of governance before it is established.
"This committee’s existence is an achievement in and of itself [but] I look forward to this committee because it will raise awareness of important issues not regularly understood or talked about [and will] provide an increased opportunity to discuss these investments," Cardinal said.
Serving as the senior sustainability advisor to the president, Cardinal has not only steered Zachary in the right direction, but as of the current language, she would also sit on the committee, should it be formed.
Zachary noted that there are 110 individuals with access to the resolution in its current state and each one has offered suggestions to ensure its feasibility without detracting from its impact. What began as a desire for more financial transparency has now become a blooming movement within the SG Sustainability Committee, SG itself and RIT as a whole, to create a permanent committee to hold RIT accountable for its investments.