Alex: Hello everyone and welcome to Reporter Podcast. I’m your host, Alex Meddin, and today to talk to us about the “Potential Committee Will Vet RIT Purchases” article in Reporter, I’m joined by Evan Zachary.
Evan: Good morning.
Alex: Evan, what is your role at RIT?
Evan: So I’m a undergrad student in the Environmental Sustainability, Health and Safety program and I’m also the chair of RIT Student Government’s Sustainability committee.
Alex: Great. And also, Taylor Goethe.
Taylor: Hello, I’m Taylor Goethe and I’m the views editor for Reporter.
Alex: Cool, so for those of you tuning in who aren’t really sure what this article’s about, it pretty much covers Evan’s idea to create a new committee through Student Government that will help advise RIT on purchasing. So Evan, can you give me a brief overview of what responsibilities you’d like this committee to hold?
Evan: Sure. So I’m gonna make sure we sort of start off by drawing a distinction between purchasing and the endowment at RIT. So purchasing lives with procurement — it’s what types of equipment and supplies we buy for the university. The endowment’s a little different. The purpose of the endowment is to provide the school with sort of a financial safety net. It’s called an inflation adjusted yield over time. So a donor would make a donation over, let’s say, a million dollars to the school, and then RIT would invest that money in mutual funds or in specific companies so that it sort of becomes more financially stable. This committee in particular looks at endowments rather than purchases. So …
Alex: So the idea would be you try to reveal where endowment money goes in order to make sure that it’s a more sustainable choice.
Evan: Right, the idea is that we want to ensure that some of the language that’s already in RIT’s investment policy is already being kept up with in terms of the companies that we invest our money in aligning with the mission of the school. As one of five schools in the country with a PhD in sustainability and a commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2030, conducting ourselves in a way that’s sustainable, both environmentally and socially, as well as economically is a part of RIT’s mission, so … it’s important to assure that the way we manage our endowment reflects that.
Alex: So I get that the committee is a review committee, so you’re not quite there yet, but I’m curious if either of you guys know how we’re doing so far. Like right now, on sustainability.
Taylor: I actually spoke to the writer of this article and how he felt SG and and some of the admin were responding to it. They’re supportive but somewhat hesitant. It’s kinda hard to have a committee that is solely dedicated to checking and holding accountability to RIT’s investments. So even though it sounds good on paper, a lot of people don’t wanna give students or faculty the authority to check where they’re investing.
Evan: Right. As a private institution, RIT has no obligation to disclose its holdings. There’s no precedent for that. We are not a public school and we aren’t legally obligated to do so. However, there’s sort of a myriad of benefits to establishing a committee like this. Financial transparency is something that gets evaluated in how schools are ranked in some sustainability listings for higher education and it also provides a platform for diversity of perspective in like, assessing social and environmental risk that could arise in the management of our endowment ... As well as, you know with two student seats on this, this is just another way for students to enrich themselves at RIT. It’s another space for them to come in and get experience and have something that they can say they did or they were part of when they were here.
Taylor: One thing I found very interesting when I first learned about this topic wasn’t just of the sustainability aspect with the environmental issues, but how sustainability works for social issues such as with sweat shops and indentured servitude. We don’t want to invest in companies that also take advantage of people, or go in war-torn countries for profit.
Evan: Yeah, and there’s one of the cooler things that SG managed to do last year was to pass a resolution advocating for a conflict-free procurement policy. Enock Ntekereze and Kevin Kane, who was the chair of the committee at the time pushed this resolution through and it dealt with our purchasing of four particular types of metals that are typically sourced from central Africa and the purchasing of those metals can oftentimes fund the perpetrators of conflicts. So it’s in … that’s part of the precedent for going a little bit farther to also evaluate these social and environmental issues and what we do with the money that we invest.
Alex: So I wonder, Evan, what is your goal for the scope of this committee? Do you see it overviewing all potential investments or slowly working through a backlog?
Evan: So that’s one of the biggest challenges to this committee. Effectively managing the scope is a challenge because the whole purpose of an investment portfolio is that it be as diversified as possible so that it’s insulated against risk. So something that the senior vice president of Finance and Administration, Dr James Waters, pointed out to me whenever I met with him, was that if this committee intends to go through our portfolio on a company-by-company basis, it’ll be dead before it starts. Which is true. Our investment portfolio, although I haven’t seen it myself and (most students and most staff and faculty also don’t see it) is likely tremendously diverse. So there are a couple pieces. One hope is that the student body and the staff and faculty body at RIT will help this committee identify its scope. And part of what we have structured into the resolution is a town hall once a year at which the university committee and come in and say, “Hey, I’m worried about this. This could be labor practices, in say, a sweatshop. This could be, you know, the suppression of information regarding greenhouse gas contributions from a company’s operations. Are we invested in that? Can we look into that? And that in turn, the committee would take that feedback, internalize it, correspond with the endowment committee to the board of trustees, and work to sort of make recommendations to how we should invest or reinvest in those areas. And how we should interact with those mutual funds. A disclaimer I probably should’ve given a little earlier was that I don’t know the most about finance. I study environmental health and safety. Things like industrial hygiene, things like air emissions and waste water, however I am able to just look at our peer institutions and see this is a best practice and then to sort of talk with other members of the university who know more about this than I do and then advocate for something that sounds like a good idea.
Taylor: One f the things I find interesting is since we are a private institution, we have more leeway in some of the things we invest in. So Evan, would you mind explaining some of the benefits RIT would have in investing in these other companies?
Evan: Sure. The world or sort of the space about that I know the most about or care the most about is sort of you know, particularly the environment aspect of sustainability. So what initially drew me to this was seeing the fossil fuel divestment movement kick up on campuses around the country. And while several of the staff members that I met with at RIT encouraged me to pursue more of a diversified and dynamic approach, not to that particular initiative but just to the management of our endowment, I think that one particular area that would be worth looking at, especially with some of the clean energy tech labs that we have here on campus would be how can we use our finances to pressure the shift from carbon-intensive energy systems to a less carbon-intensive energy system of production and distribution and things like linear consumption and production of waste, I think we can play a role in. RIT’s a large institution and we should have a platform for wielding those finances as best we can.
Alex: Yeah, I know that historically, university divestment is a powerful tool. But I wonder how successful you see this committee being. I know that you base it off of a similar idea in, I believe, Columbia University? So can you talk about how successful that committee has been?
Evan: Yeah, so I would’ve liked to have more of an opportunity upto this point to talk to the folks at Columbia about how their committee has been going but one of the coolest things about their committee is that they’re so thorough about what they publish on their website and the information they make available about how they operate and what their purpose is. That just from visiting their school’s landing page I’m able to learn a lot about their committee. And if you just sit down and Google “Columbia socially responsible investing” it’ll take you right to the landing page and you can learn about how it is they do what they do. A lot of the language about how they manage their scope and how they staff their committee is right there on their website and that’s really served as a good charter for me, sort of looking forward.
Alex: So I wonder, how do you measure success in this sort of field?
Evan: Oh gosh, um, how do I measure success in this sort of field? I guess, for me success would look like these townhalls happening and there being a platform for students, staff and faculty to make their concerns known and when or if this committee puts out an annual report, either independently or consolidated with another report, that the concerns that are identified by the university line up with the recommendations that were made by this committee. To me that’s just ensuring that we’re considering diverse perspectives in terms of how the university conducts itself. At the end of the day it is just an advisory committee. It doesn’t have the ability and wouldn’t have the ability to actually reallocate any of our investments. However, as I’ve been told at many other schools, this committee once established sort of does act as the authority on these matters, and its advice is typically taken quite seriously and acted upon.
Taylor: I know when we were talking yesterday and going over about your proposal that one of your biggest concerns was giving this teeth. Because even if other schools may take their social responsible investment committee seriously, there is no guarantee, there is no way we can force them to divest in fossil fuels or other problematic businesses. It’s really just advisory. So are you concerned that even if this committee is established, that maybe no change will be done?
Evan: That’s definitely a concern of mine. And I think that even if we are, for example, while I with my not-Student Government, not RIT-Sustainability hat on, me as a person might see merit to the fossil fuel divestment movement. Something that I recognize is that shareholder activism and shareholder … like active shareholder management has as much of a role to play as divestment … sort of cold turkey. So if we stay at the table, let’s say with a fossil fuel company, we retain our ability to vote on shareholder resolutions, and in doing so can try to steer energy companies into a more sustainable direction and sort of flex what financial muscle we do have at that table. And so … there were two parts to your question, could you remind me what the other one was?
Taylor: Um, the first were about giving the proposal teeth, and the second would be concerns that the endowment committee would not follow recommendations.
Evan: Yeah, um, I hope to strike a balance as best I can with the language in this resolution of having this committee be written and structured in a way that is effective, and balancing that with its likelihood that it’ll actually come to exist. It’s a bit of a tight rope to walk because I don’t want the language in the resolution to be so aggressive that when it lands on the tables of academic senate or staff council and ultimately in front of, you know, the board of trustees that they say, “Woah, woah, woah, never mind.” And that we blow that shot. That being said, if it doesn’t have the ability to actually do what it says it’ll do, then it’s done nothing but waste people’s time. And so it is a tight rope, it’s something that I continue to think about as I craft the language even when I spoke with you. Doing things like specifying timelines, doing things like having explicit language that ensures that complete information is provided to this committee so that it can make educated recommendations. [These] are all sort of aspects of maybe … not so pointy teeth but teeth nonetheless that it’s able to chew on these issues with.
Taylor: Yeah, one thing I really appreciated about your proposal is how you want to create a working relationship with the endowment committee, particularly where they can ask you recommendations and advice instead of you just nagging them every night and day, check this check that. But they can work with you and collaborate on issues that they may be concerned with and not totally sure of.
Evan: Right and the hope is that you know, these two committees — so if you start at the board of trustees it has an endowment committee, as it’s a committee to the board of trustees. And this would be a sub-committee to the endowment committee to the board of trustees. And ideally, it would be a two-way street of communication. If the endowment committee was evaluating a new mutual fund, it would first consult with, or as part of that process, consult with the Socially Responsible Investment Advisory Committee before proceeding or in turn, if a concern is identified at a town hall, you know the Socially Responsible Investment Advisory Committee (it never becomes less of a mouthful) could then turn around to the endowment committee and ask them for information on a particular issue.
Alex: Okay so we’re running out of time but I have one more question for you. Do you have any idea, if you can get this to happen, and when it might be happening?
Evan: Um, hmm, it’s a good question. Hopefully sooner than later. This is my last semester as a full-time student so I’m definitely pressed for time in that sense. However, one aspect of stability that Student Government has established for itself is the committee, or rather the committee system. And so the thing that I like so much about that is it creates a space for the development of other students to lead. There are about nine students that sit on Student Government sustainability committee and they're all tasked with different projects. Some of them are really stepping up and interviewing to take on more of a leadership role in that. And I have full faith in them that they’ll be able to carry this to fruition whether it happens this year or next year and I think we’ll see it here in the next year or two.
Alex: Alright, that’s great. Maybe we can have you back when it’s finally established. So that’s it for this episode of Reporter Podcast. Be sure to follow us on social media to see when this article hits the stands or it goes up online. Online will be at reporter.rit.edu and also follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @reportermag and reportermag on snapchat. And also, by the way, make sure to call RINGS sometime. RINGS is really cool, you just call in and you can share any thoughts you might have and you might get into the magazine. So, the phone number for that is 585-672-4840. Don’t be afraid to be a little weird.