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October 18, 2012

Middlebury College Dalai Lama Prank Turns Focus on Endowment

Dalai3In the run-up to last weekend's high-profile visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Middlebury College came this surprising announcement: The college was using the Dalai Lama's visit, apparently, as an opportune time to publicly divest its endowment from investments supporting war and environmental destruction.  

At least, that's what Tim Shornak, the "Director of the College Office of Communications of the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee," claimed in a press release emailed to students and faculty and posted on flyers around campus Oct. 12. But red flags went up quickly. The student online publication Midd Blog quickly realized "Shornak" wasn't listed in the college directory — and, tellingly, used a Gmail address to send the message. Officials who were listed in the directory — such as director of communications Sarah Ray — disavowed the announcement. 

Earlier this week, the so-called "Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee" stepped forward.

The group consists of students Molly Stuart, Jenny Marks, Jay Saper, Sam Koplinka-Loehr, and Amitai Ben-Abba. They announced the prank Tuesday in a blog post titled "Press Release Authors Come Clean: A Call for Middlebury College to Do the Same." They've since added what they call a "growing contingent" of supporters — numbering 75 on Thursday morning, according to an online petition. 

The press release may have been a hoax, but the students aren't joking about their concerns. Ben-Abba says the college suffers from "cognitive dissonance" when it comes to its endowment. He and his friends accuse the institution of hypocrisy in publicly espousing values of compassion and peace while privately profiting from supposedly socially irresponsible investments. In their "coming clean" letter — which they wrote in tandem with the press release, but waited several days to publish — the students wrote: 

In the classrooms, we continue to learn about how to best be global citizens and address the challenges of today, but the chairs in our rooms, the books in our libraries, and the paychecks of our professors are funded by returns from corporations and organizations that are fueling war and environmental degradation. While the benefits reaped from these returns maintain comfort and complacency, the only way to assuage our ethical dissonance is to act now and divest.

Middlebury's endowment, as of June 30, totalled approximately $881 million. Because the college doesn't disclose how that money is invested, the student activists are acting only on the assumption that some of the funds are tied up in companies that support war, arms manufacturing or environmental destruction. But Koplinka-Loehr says it's not a wild assumption to make.

"Because the oil industries and the military contractors are the most profitable industries on the market, it is almost 100 percent assured that we have been invested in these companies in the past, and that we continue to be invested in them," he tells Seven Days. "If we have nothing to hide, if our money actually stands with our values, then why haven't we been told any of the given companies we've invested in?" 

The college's statement yesterday pointed out that last year the college held an open meeting with Investure, the firm that manages its endowment, to discuss investment policies; the college also says it's committed to continuing "open, well-informed discussions on this topic." But Koplinka-Loehr and Ben-Abba say they weren't satisfied with what they heard at that meeting. When one student explicitly asked if Investure screened its hedge funds for arms manufacturers, the company said no.

"What I’ve taken away is that students have been calling out this hypocrisy for many, many years," says Koplinka-Loehr. "This is something that students feel very strongly about … but the administration has historically put roadblock after roadblock after roadblock in terms of actually addressing these inequalities." 

Middlebury College earns a "C" for endowment transparency from the College Sustainability Report Card, though it gets significantly higher marks for its investment priorities. The report card notes that the college uses investment managers who consider environmental and sustainability factors, and that donors can funnel their gifts into sustainable or socially responsible investment options. However, as of June, those investments made up less than 1 percent of the total endowment.  

Ben-Abba admits theirs is an ambitious goal; he doesn't know of any other colleges or universities that have adopted the kind of transparency and socially responsible investing he and his fellow comrades desire. However, he points out that there's been a history of influential divestment in the past. In the 1980s, he says, more than 150 colleges — including Middlebury — divested from companies that supported apartheid in South Africa. "It's an important tactic for creating a better world," he says.

The college responded to the pranksters' confession with an official statement yesterday, expressing satisfaction that the students responsible had come forward — but adding "we do not believe ... that the Dalai Lama's message about working toward a more peaceful world sanctioned the use of deceptive means to achieve desired ends." The statement also stressed how seriously the college takes honesty, integrity, and the "responsible and ethical use of library and information services and electronic messages," adding that the college is investigating the incident and would take disciplinary action if warranted. 

In fact, Koplinka-Loehr and Ben-Abba say that six students — the five members of the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee, and a sixth student they maintain wasn't involved in the incident — are already facing consequences. A disciplinary hearing is scheduled for Nov. 1.

The Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) team, a Middlebury College student club, also stepped forward in the wake of the incident. In an email sent out to students yesterday, the club denied any involvement with the hoax, but called it an "interesting opportunity to continue the discussion of ethics in Middlebury's endowment." The club also announced that they are in discussion with the administration to have a select group of students sit, for the first time ever, on the Board of Trustees Finance Committee. 

Ben-Abba and Koplinka-Loehr say that they're sorry if they raised the hopes of students with their fake announcement. (Some even forwarded the message to parents and peers at other colleges in their excitement.) They say their goal wasn't too create more deception, only to call out what they see as hypocrisy from their college. In response, they say, they've heard both "overwhelming support" for their mission and disappointment that their hoax wasn't true.

"People thought this was something that Middlebury would actually do," says Koplinka-Loehr. "People felt like it's something that's not only reasonable, but achievable, so I think we've raised a lot of questions and awareness about the issue."

Photo by Steven Brock.

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