Last October 4, a group of students clutching more than 2,000 petitions knocked on the door of the Duke University Board of Trustees meeting and requested an audience. Burly security guards barred the door on the order of vexed University President Richard Brodhead. Brodhead, visibly nervous, tried to usher the students out, calling their presence an “interruption.” Undeterred, the group resisted, asking for a chance to present the proposal they had spent almost a year crafting. The president, adamant in his refusal, returned to the meeting and shut the door.
Despite the hostile reception, a modified version of the students’ proposal—which called for the overhaul of the university’s guidelines on investment responsibility—had already found its way onto the board’s agenda. On October 4, 2013, the trustees voted to adopt the new guidelines, expanding the university’s investment oversight committee and establishing a special fund within the endowment—a Social Choice Fund—which will be invested only in prescreened, socially responsible funds.
Although the board rejected the students’ central request—the limited disclosure of the endowment’s investments—the new policy, in Brodhead’s words, reflects, “the most significant changes to our approach to socially responsible investment in almost a decade.” The board, in adopting these changes, not only affirmed the importance of socially responsible investing, but also revealed the tremendous power of thoughtful, impassioned and persistent student advocacy.
DukeOpen, the group that pushed the changes, formed in the spring of 2013 and consisted of just a small group of determined students for much of its year-long campaign. This group, of which we, along with Abhishek Bose-Kolanu and Lucas Spangher, were a part, conducted research on investment practices at other universities, met with administrators and investment officials, and, over the course of several months, crafted a comprehensive proposal in support of greater endowment transparency and investment responsibility. Committed to the belief that a university’s investments matter, that where Duke chooses to invest its nearly $6 billion endowment has a significant material and symbolic impact in the world, DukeOpen set out to bring its proposal to the board of trustees.
In the naïve hope that we might forestall complications or delays, we sent our proposal to the board of trustee’s secretary, Richard Riddell, two weeks in advance of the deadline for submitting material to the May 2013 board meeting. Riddell swiftly redirected our proposal to the President’s Select Committee on Investment Responsibility, shuttling us into what would become a seemingly endless maze of administrative committees and confidential communiqués. Getting a proposal to the board, we discovered, would prove to be an extraordinarily complicated affair.
It was, however, precisely this complexity that we sought to remedy. For a decade, students concerned about investment responsibility had to shepherd proposals or ideas through two committees—the President’s Special Committee on Investment Responsibility (PSC) and the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility (ACIR)—secure a favorable recommendation from the president, and obtain the approval of the board of trustees. The process was made more onerous by the fact that the committees met infrequently and with no regularity. In an attempt to improve the process, we requested that each committee convene monthly and proposed more robust institutional support for groups concerned about investment responsibility.