Opinion: Why Reed Will Never Divest from Anything

This article begins with a correction to last week’s story titled “Greenboard Asks for Transparency about Divestment.” The story stated that “Reed President Paul Bragdon announced in 1986 that Reed would be divesting from South African businesses during apartheid.” In reality, Bragdon announced that Reed would only maintain investments in companies that adhered to the Sullivan Principles. A post to Reed Library’s “Tales from the Archives” blog made earlier this year gave a more detailed account of Reedies Against Racism’s divestment campaign of the 80s gave this description of the Sullivan Principles:

“The Sullivan Principles were first published in 1977 by Reverend Leon H. Sullivan. They urged global ‘corporate social responsibility’ through a set of seven principles intended to promote equal-opportunity employment practices. Over time Rev. Sullivan became increasingly disillusioned by their ability to effect social change, and by October 1985, he issued an ultimatum in an interview with New Yorker Magazine: ‘If apartheid is not abolished in actuality [within the next two years], all foreign corporations should leave [South Africa]. This should be followed by a total ban on all imports and exports.’”

All of Reed’s investments at the time were in keeping with the Sullivan Principles, so their portfolio saw no change. Bragdon did not yield to student demands, Bragdon moved the goalposts, and students didn’t fall for his shit. After Bragdon made his announcement, students occupied Eliot Hall for days, preventing anyone from coming in or out, keeping students from going to classes, and locking administrators out of their offices. The piece published by the library writes that students continued to protest investments in South African companies, but after Bragdon retired in 1988, students became less interested in the cause. Reed’s playbook has not changed.

Since Divest Reed hit its fever pitch in 2019, student movements towards divestment have largely died down. President Audrey Bilger assumed her presidency during this time, and once COVID hit, there were bigger things on her plate, and apparently the plates of students as well. Once in person organizing and on-campus postering, tabling, and protesting became inaccessible and dangerous media for activism, Divest Reed lost a lot of traction.

Now, two years later, Bilger and the Board of Trustees are patting themselves on the back for directing the Reed Investment committee to do something that is not divestment. President Bilger and Board of Trustees Chair Roger Perlmutter’s announcement never uses the word “divestment,” because Reed is not divesting from fossil fuels. I cannot stress this enough: Reed is not divesting from fossil fuels. “Divestment” is a political tactic used to signal that an institution like Reed does not approve of and will not support a company or practice, like the use of fossil fuels, by withdrawing funds from its investments in those companies or practices. The Board of Trustees, however, does not send political messages. In 2014, Perlmutter sent a letter to a student group called “Fossil Free Reed” regarding student calls for divestment from fossil fuels at the time, where he stressed that the Board of Trustees primary responsibility was to make money for the endowment above all else. Second to its fiduciary concerns, the 2014 letter states that the Board’s goal is to protect “Reed’s intense commitment to academic freedom.” Perlmutter found that sustaining Reed’s academic freedom “requires limiting the political role of the institution or the enlistment of the institution’s name in political causes. Institutional neutrality, we believe, provides the best protection for freedom of inquiry and expression.” This policy has also gone unchanged.

Perlmutter sent out another letter in 2019 regarding fossil fuel investments, this time with a more hopeful tone. While Reed’s Investment Responsibility Policy directs the Board of Trustees to not make politically motivated decisions, it does allow for moral considerations only “where the action taken reflects widely-held, perhaps almost universally held, social, or moral positions.” The 2019 letter was looking forward to a Reed Union held in February 2020 on climate concerns and fossil fuels, and announced that the Board was considering climate change as a position that is widely, perhaps almost universally, held. The email that was sent out this November announcing Reed’s prohibition of new investments in fossil fuels represents that the board’s recent vote “represents an evolution of the Board’s views regarding Reed’s endowment investments in fossil fuels.”

But this prompts some questions. Why has the board only considered fossil fuels to be a widely, perhaps almost universally, accepted problem now, when decades of climate science affirmed that climate change was a large, anthropogenic problem even back in 2014? How do we decide if a problem is widely accepted? Is it not widely accepted that the prison industrial complex causes mass suffering and systematic harm to Black, Indigenous, and other historically marginalized peoples? Is it not widely accepted that the military industrial complex lets the U.S. military and U.S. armed militant groups cause violence against countless vulnerable people? Why does climate change receive this special designation from the Board, while other pressing issues do not?

The bottom line is that as long as Reed’s political neutrality policy stands, the only moral considerations regarding Reed’s endowment will be those that have become so politically obsolete and taken for granted that Reed’s “divestment” from them will be sending an old and irrelevant signal. Financial responsibility and Perlmutter’s concerns about the immorality of Reed’s endowment being the lynchpin of academic freedom are the only justifications we have for this policy. Reed has been clear that its official stance is that to invest in is not necessarily to endorse, yet Reed wants to make a big deal about the political implications of stopping investments in fossil fuels. Amid these contradictory values, it is up to the broader Reed community, and ultimately the Board of Trustees, to decide whether the endowment gets to have its cake and eat it too.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Related Stories


We would love your thoughts, please comment!x
%d bloggers like this: