Students lobby administrators to divest from Sudan

A change in GW’s administration may mean a shift in University policy regarding divestment from Sudan.

When student activists lobbied former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg to divest from companies with financial ties to Sudan’s government, their attempts were unsuccessful. Now the students have passed a Student Association resolution in support of divestment and are hopeful the University’s newest University President Steven Knapp will agree with their suggestions.

SA Sen. Eugene Beckley (CCAS-U), who introduced the legislation, said if the Knapp administration divests from companies that fund the Sudanese government, the University would be able to show that it does not support the atrocities that are occurring in Darfur.

“It’s going to show that the SA, the University and GW Students Taking Action Now Darfur are all united in taking a firm stance against it, and serious talks are going to be held about divestment,” said Beckley, a sophomore. “GW is not going to stand for it. It’s not something that we support.”

Adam Zuckerman, co-chair of Divest: GW, said University holdings in the region might make GW involved with genocide.

“The students are essentially shareholders in this institution and we would like to have influence over whether our funds are going to support genocide,” Zuckerman said. “It reflects on us. We draw the line at genocide.”

But Donald Lindsey, chief investment officer for GW’s $1.2 billion endowment, said it is not that simple.

“There are hundreds of egregious acts that are egregious to different people,” Lindsey said. “Where do you draw the line? One group can say genocide, but how do you say no to something important to someone else? A university as diverse as GW can’t afford to begin making these sorts of judgments.”

Lindsay said it is disingenuous and arrogant to think he could have an impact on a company’s actions by selling a stock. The move, he said, would be symbolic.

It is unlikely GW’s endowment holds any of the companies concerned so divestment would be an unnoticed, anonymous measure, Lindsay said.

“Economic interest is simply transferred to another anonymous stock holder,” he said. “Do something that is visible. Do something that is difficult and requires a real commitment that goes beyond putting in a sell order to a broker. Selling a stock is like the proverbial riddle, ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?'”

Moreover, Lindsey said the structure of the endowment’s holdings makes it nearly impossible to divest. Similar to most other large endowments, much of the school’s endowment is channeled through 46 “external advisory investment relationships,” such as shares in hedge funds. These holdings vary significantly from day to day and GW does not have control over their allocations.

He added that he has spoken with other fund managers who had joined the divestment campaign who told him the programs were “very, very difficult” to implement.

According to the Sudan Divestment Task Force, more than 50 universities, 15 states and five cities have restricted their Sudan-linked investments. These include major universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford and the University of California system. Locally, American and Howard have divested, and Georgetown has agreed to begin the process. These institutions are following the same model that Divest: GW has pressed for.

Sophomore Sonya Naganathan, co-chair of GW: Divest, stressed that the divestment model her organization is rallying for is targeted, as opposed to the broad divestment model that had been applied in South African divestment.

She also pointed to a number of companies including Rolls Royce and Siemens which she said had ended their operations in the Sudan as a result of the campaign. “Having a new president and chair could be a huge factor. Change helps,” said sophomore Sonya Naganathan, co-chair of Divest: GW. “We are looking forward to working with President Knapp on this issue.”

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