The Board of Regents Student Committee (BOSRC) held an open forum for students on Mar. 6. The open forum provided a space for students to receive updated information about the divestment process, which St. Olaf began in May 2021.
“There is a great deal to be gained from an open forum like this one, so long as everyone is ready to have a productive conversation and seeking to understand why things are happening the way they are,” BORSC Coordinator Fenton Krupp ’24 wrote in a statement to The Olaf Messenger. “I felt like everyone in the room seemed to be in that productive headspace.”
The discussion was initially scheduled for Feb. 20, but was postponed.
Students sat in Viking Theater and joined via Zoom to learn more about the College’s current investments. Regent John Raitt, Chair of the Investment Committee, Jan Hanson, Chief Financial Officer of the College, and David Russel from CornerStone Partners — the investment company St. Olaf uses to manage its endowment investments — were all present on Zoom.
The forum opened with Raitt, Russel, and Hanson introducing themselves and their involvement in the investment committee. Raitt began the conversation by explaining that the endowment includes investments in mutual funds, venture capital, private equity, real estate, and stocks. He then compared the College’s divestment plan to those of other liberal arts colleges, including Carleton and Middlebury.
Russel then gave an overview of the current state of St. Olaf’s divestment from fossil fuels. He said that the rising value of oil and gas has actually increased the percentage of the endowment from the industry. However, the College no longer makes new investments in the industry and expects its current investments in fossil fuels to end in five to seven years.
According to Russell, most of the College’s investment in fossil fuels comes from mutual funds, making it easier to wait for the contracts to run out and not repurchase rather than to sell off the investment abruptly. CornerStone Partners has begun to find mutual funds with more sustainable investments to replace the current funds when the investments terminate.
The original aim of the divestment movement was to end investments in the fossil fuel and defense industries. Russell clarified that St. Olaf currently has no investments in defense or weapons manufacturing but that it has a small amount invested in aero-space, specifically in Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX. When asked if the college invests in any companies associated with the state of Israel, he replied that roughly 0.5 percent of the endowment is invested in global technology companies in Israel. No questions about investments in private prisons came up in the conversation, although it was an important element of the Carleton divestment movement.
When asked whether he thought the event accomplished its goal of starting a conversation between the Investment Committee and students, Krupp wrote, “…we had just about 30 people attend, which felt solid for a conversation about investment policy. Everyone who wanted to speak had an opportunity, and David didn’t shy away from questions about topics like Israel or the military-industrial complex. Students had questions, BORSC helped them get answers — that’s exactly how BORSC should be serving students. The next step of course is continuing to advocate for change and ensuring that the Investment Committee continues to share space with students.”
Indeed, the open forum began what will hopefully be a more open dialogue about the state of St. Olaf’s divestment process following a year of silence from administration. Russell said that the lack of updates was due to a fear that releasing too much information would place St. Olaf under public scrutiny.
BORSC hopes to maintain transparency between the investment committee and students. Krupp was hopeful that the forum is the beginning of this new relationship, writing, “I would be happy to see an event like this happen once or twice a year. If there are other venues or ways students are interested in interacting with the board, I’m happy to talk with you, send me an email or swing by the OSA.”