What Does Political Neutrality Mean to You?

Senate, Greenboard Move Forward on Appealing Wells Fargo Decision, Divestment

 Photo courtesy of Sky Ford

Photo courtesy of Sky Ford

On Thursday, November 15, the Ad-Hoc Committee on Wells Fargo held a public round table discussion. This event follows Senate’s appeal of the decision made by a sub-committee of the Board of Trustees to keep Wells Fargo as Reed’s operating bank. Organized by members of the committee, which includes senators Gabi Stonoha ‘21, Natasha Baas-Thomas ‘19, and three trustees, the round table event invited feedback from those present – approximately 40 students, staff, and administrators. Faculty were largely absent, and the students who attended were predominantly members of Senate, Greenboard, or Reedies Against Racism (RAR).

Senate initiated the appeals process at the end of Spring 2018, with Baas-Thomas and Stonoha leading the process in collaboration with the rest of Senate and RAR. Senate appealed the decision announced by the Board of Trustees in December 2017: that Reed would keep Wells Fargo as its operating bank, rejecting RAR’s demand that Reed change due to Wells Fargo’s ties to the Dakota Access Pipeline and private prisons, as well as its discriminatory lending practices. The three trustees involved in the appeal process are different from the trustees in the sub-committee that made the initial decision.

The round table event divided attendees into individual tables to discuss two prompts, asking “Is it possible to develop general principles to use in evaluating Reed’s vendor relationships that are consistent with the college’s operating principles, and that do not force the college to take positions on political issues?” and “In deciding which vendors to transact business with, what weight (if any) should Reed place on corporate conduct, relative to other factors such as economic costs and service requirements?” A notetaker at each individual table ensured that the resulting discussion would be considered by  the appeals committee. Following the individual table discussions, the appeals committee held a 20-minute question-and-answer session for attendees to ask about the appeal process.

Sky Ford ‘21 expressed concern about the premises of these prompts, as they told the Quest: “Many people at my table were concerned with the more underlying problem of how this prompt, and the operating principles of the college define what is ‘political’ and what is ‘politically neutral.’” Ford added, though, that “it was really heartening to attend the round table discussion and see how both students and administrators there were genuinely concerned about where Reed's money is going. Attending the discussion actually made me more optimistic about the appeal being successful. The way the appeals committee is structured, the trustees have effectively the final say on any decision, but I didn't get the impression that it was a situation of the trustee and student members being completely at odds.”

Senator Pax Lloyd-Burchett ‘21 noted that the event raised “the concern of [Reed’s new] bank being able to handle Reed's financials.” Because of this, Lloyd-Burchett commented “from what was said at the round table this appeal is mostly to open to possibility of switching to a bank of a similar size to Wells Fargo [or], in plain English, a bank that may be slightly better in some ways, but worse in others. I think most of the student body wants us to change from Wells Fargo to a smaller, and more ethical bank, [but] it was made fairly clear that the trustees are only considering larger banks.” When RAR first brought their demand to the administration last year, they proposed that Reed switch to operating through Umpqua Bank, a smaller, Portland-based bank that expressed its willingness to hold Reed’s money in a letter to the college. They opposed Reed simply operating through another other large national bank.

According to Baas-Thomas, the appeal committee is “hoping to present a recommendation on whether or not Reed should change its operating bank by February,” before the next meeting of the entire Board. She added, “We also have a backup deadline in case we can't reach a consensus or final recommendation, which is the following trustee meeting that happens before the end of the spring semester.” Stonoha and Baas-Thomas will continue as members  of the committee after their terms as senators expire at the end of this semester.

In addition to the appeal process, Ford and other members of Greenboard are organizing alongside Senate. Ford explained, “Our aim is to both support the process of finding a new operating bank and push the discussion to the more fundamental ideological issue of the ‘codified apathy’ that we have with the Investment Responsibility Policy and in the College's operating principles.”

Starting earlier this week, this group of students has been collecting signatures in the library lobby for a petition to accompany a letter to the Investment Committee. According to Ford, “The letter [demands a] policy change that recognizes that an educational institution can't be politically neutral, and that all economic choices have political weight[.]” It also “requests a series of on campus forums with the investment committee next semester, which will address the specific nature of policy reform.” They encourage students in the library to talk with the organizers in the lobby, who have “set up something in between a tabling space, a sit in, and an art installation.”

Greenboard also hung a poster in the main floor hallway of the GCC for students to offer their opinions about Reed’s stance on political neutrality, with markers hanging from the ceiling for students to write their thoughts. One student wrote, “Reed is only politically neutral when it is financially beneficial. I feel like we should decide on values that guide our decisions instead of deciding our actions and then defining our values by them,” while another added, “The use of money will ALWAYS be political, and the idea of neutral investing is wrong.” Students like these are responding to sections of Reed’s Investment Policy that read “The college[...] avoids taking positions on political issues that do not affect the college or higher education directly,” or “To own is not necessarily entirely to endorse.”

Ford is “optimistic about this process sparking lasting discussion on the policy that guides our investments.” This, though, requires student engagement. They emphasized the importance of involvement with what both Greenboard and Senate are trying to accomplish, adding, “it is vital for there to be discussion and open communication among the student body and between students faculty and administration, especially where there is disagreement. I believe everyone involved here has good intentions most of the time, and refusal to engage just furthers detrimental animosity.”

The outcome of both Reed’s relationship with Wells Fargo and Reed’s Investment Policy remains uncertain. Despite this, there remains reason to hope for change, even if that change is ultimately minor.