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Does Divestment STAND a Chance?

White paper human cut-outs lay sprawled across South Lawn on Monday as part of a "Die In" organized by Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), a University CIO dedicated to promoting awareness of current events in Darfur, Sudan.

STAND sought to use the symbolic paper corpses to represent the mass killings in the Darfur region that began in 2003. These attacks were caused by the regime running Sudan's government. Moreover, STAND members said they fear the University's investments might be indirectly funding those atrocities.

The Situation in Darfur

Current STAND divestment co-chair Laura Harris said she feels that the current situation in Darfur stemmed from the Sudanese government, located in Sudan's capital of Khartoum. According to the State Department, the government, run primarily by Arabs, began funding militias, known as the Janjaweed, whose purpose is to attack the people of Darfur, who are ethnically African.

The regime in Khartoum that is funding the Janjaweed receives 90 percent of its revenue from oil, 80 percent of which goes toward buying weapons, Harris said.

"There's a very clear path from the oil companies to the weapons that are being used to kill a very specific segment of a population," she said.

Harris added that she feels the many institutions worldwide who invest in companies that are doing business in Sudan are indirectly funding a genocidal regime. For example, she cited oil infrastructure, such as aircraft landing strips that are used by Janjaweed helicopters.

Harris said she is particularly outraged by what she perceives as the complacency of companies who do business in Sudan without asking about issues of human rights. Moreover, Harris said she couldn't comprehend how a state of affairs this appalling could be occurring without some sort of uproar from others.

"It seems to me such a basic human rights issue," Harris said. "The situation is so dire that it seems important to concentrate on it and generate attention that you can't just sit back and be like, 'Well, this is happening, but whatever.'"

Starting a Divestment Campaign

Last fall, fourth-year College students Pablo Man and Paul Novick decided to take action and establish a divestment initiative at the University.

"It started because we decided that this was an important way that we as students could get involved in and help the situation in Darfur," Man said.

Motivated by the successful divestment campaigns at both Harvard University and Stanford University, the two previous divestment co-chairs started researching ways to emulate these efforts at the University.

Novick said he realized that it was going to be more complicated to do the same at the University. Whereas Harvard had direct stock in PetroChina, Novick said, the University's investment company might invest through one of its multiple managers.

"It's so indirect," at the University, Novick said, "it's going to be a lot harder to do than Harvard or Stanford."

Is the University Involved?

Determined to make an impact, Man and Novick said they attempted to find out which companies the University invests in.

They added that identifying the investments was a major obstacle: The company that manages the University's investments, The University of Virginia Investment Management Company (UVIMCO), became a private organization in 2004.

"Whenever you try to get information, since they're not legally required to disclose it, they don't," Man said.

UVIMCO, as a private group, is not legally bound to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests for information the same way a public entity like the University is.

"I was really optimistic last semester, and just seeing that it's a private company, it's going to be tremendously hard to get them to divulge something," Novick said.

Man and Novick, upon doing research on UVIMCO, said they found that the company does not consider social issues when investing.

"The only thing that drives them is the desire for long-term returns, and they could be investing in any company that does that," Man said. "That's really a primary concern for us, and it should be for every student."

Chris Brightman, chief executive officer of UVIMCO, explained that the company's policies are determined by the 11 members on the board of directors, three of which are on the University's Board of Visitors as well.

"It's not our policy now to divulge information on the specific managers that we invest in," Brightman said as to why the University's investments remain concealed.

Brightman stressed that he, as well as other members of the staff, are not the ones behind UVIMCO's policies, which he said he believes are set in concordance with the BOV.

"My role would be to execute the policies that are given -- I would pursue divestment if instructed to do so," Brightman said. "The UVIMCO board hasn't asked me for my personal opinion nor have I given it. As a practical matter, I think it's conceivable the UVIMCO board would consult with the University's Board of Visitors before setting such a policy."

Yet Harris said she agreed with Man's apprehensions and was curious as to why the University was being so secretive in divulging the companies in which they invest.

"I personally think that U.Va. should be open about its investments," Harris said. "It's important for students to know where their money is going, not just have it be blindly funding different things."

Currently, the companies that the University invests in remain closely guarded, and those in support of divestment are left in the dark as to whether or not their efforts are futile.

Although there is no concrete evidence, Novick said he assumes the University invests in companies involved in Sudan because UVIMCO is not providing information that would say otherwise.

"It's more of a hassle on their hands [to not tell us] -- they don't want bad press," Novick said. "They know that we're from STAND and if they have something that we don't like, they're probably not going to tell us."

The Bigger Picture

The ultimate goal of divestment, on a larger scale, is to have enough investors take their money out of the companies that do business in Sudan. Those in favor of divestment hope those companies will then come to the realization that they shouldn't be doing business there.

"If you make a lot of noise, a lot of investors pull their money out, the company might rethink their strategy in that country and be like, 'If our investors don't want us investing in that country, maybe we should pull out until the Sudanese government abides by human rights regulations,'" Novick said.

While the University is only one institution, Novick emphasized that every role, no matter how small, is key in order for divestment to work.

"The way I see it, U.Va. is like a puzzle piece -- if we divest, we're a small piece of a larger picture, a larger puzzle," Novick said. "If we divest from PetroChina, it doesn't mean that in Darfur there's going to be no violence -- stocks are publicly traded, we sell them, someone else can buy them."

Brightman said the UVIMCO board of directors works in consultation with the BOV and would follow their lead if they thought divestment was necessary.

"Other universities have taken such actions, so, for that reason, it doesn't seem inconceivable that the University would go in that direction," Brightman said. "In my cursory understanding of the situation, while there are a number of universities that have pursued that path, there are as many or more who have not."

But Novick added that, if the University divests, it might encourage other schools in Virginia to do the same. If more and more schools divest, it would put pressure on the Virginia General Assembly to act as well. While the process would be lengthy, he said the time period should not be a factor in committing to a worthwhile cause.

"The University is founded on honor," Novick said. "Every day [you hear] something about honor, some debate, and yet, people that manage $3 billion of our endowment of our university can invest in companies that have no honor whatsoever."

Harris said she agreed that, if the University is in fact investing in companies doing business in Sudan, it would be unacceptable to continue doing so, as she feels it would be implicitly condoning genocide.

Harris said she thought the University is "giving their approval of it simply by not acting, which is what we want to change."

In an e-mail correspondence, Leonard Sandridge, University executive vice president and chief operating officer, clarified the way in which the University invests.

"The University and UVIMCO do not pick individual stocks for investment -- we invest in a pool of stocks through our managers," Sandridge said. "Unlike some endowment companies that do select individual stocks, we are not in a position to unilaterally sell specific stocks."

Sandridge, also a member of UVIMCO's board of directors, said the company invests in a manner they see fit for the University.

"Donors choose to invest in the endowment," Sandridge said. "It is our responsibility to invest the funds they give to the University in a prudent manner that yields reasonable returns to support the University's operations."

Student and Faculty Reactions

In order to gain more support for their efforts to have the University divest, STAND members said they are currently focusing on gaining support from other CIOs on Grounds.

"We've talked to the administration before, and they've been able to dismiss us," Harris said. "But we believe that when we have student support from a wide range of students, they'll have to listen to us, because the students do represent the University."

She added that student support of their effort doesn't require intense involvement -- simply signing their petition would be significant.

Harris said she aims to be able to inform and educate more people about STAND and the University's possible connection with the situation in Darfur.

"Our hope is that the more people that know about it, the less they'll be able to sit and do nothing," she said.

Sociology Professor Justin Holcomb, who has been to Sudan four times, is embracing that sentiment. He has spent most of his time working in southern Sudan but said both situations are somewhat related.

"The conflict [in Darfur] is very similar to the conflict in southern Sudan, which has been going on for 20-plus years, because its government is funding militia groups to wreak their havoc in the south," Holcomb said. "The government of Sudan is a big fan of funding terrorist militia groups, that way it can appear their hands are clean from the conflict."

Because of his experiences in Sudan, where he said he plans to return this summer, Holcomb added that the current state of affairs in Darfur is very important to him.

"I am in favor of divestment, but I'm not sold on how effective it can be," Holcomb said. "This is just me, as someone who cares deeply about the issue in Sudan, trying to think clearly ... but my concern for Sudan is to find the most effective and the quickest way to assist with the peace process there."

Despite the potential setbacks, Holcomb's desire to help the country he has invested much of his time in led him to hope that things will turn out for the best.

"I'm an optimist on this one," Holcomb said. "I just think if U.Va. and those involved in investing knew that they were directly funding horrible suffering, directly because of their investments, I think they would do something about it."

Holcomb added that the success of divestment is largely dependent upon each situation, and, without all the necessary information, he isn't able to say one way or another in Darfur's case.

"Divestment's not the cure-all for genocide," Holcomb said. "The whole thing is trying to figure out, what's the best way to be involved -- divestment could be for Sudan, I don't know, but it sure is worth exploring.

What the Future Holds

Though STAND has pushed forward with efforts for its divestment campaign, Man and Novick said there is still much more to be done before divestment could become a reality.

"In this case, it's really something that will also kind of make the University rethink the way it invests, which I really think it should," Harris said. "I think that, as a university based on honor, students should have the freedom of information, the transparency, to know that their investments are being invested responsibly."

Man agreed students should be more aware of where their money is going and said he hopes they understand the true weight of this situation.

"I just want to stress the importance of the student body realizing how shocking it is to be part of a university that does not consider genocide a good enough reason to sell its stock," Man said.

Harris said that, in order for this divestment initiative to move forward, they need the support of the students so they can truly be speaking for the University when they claim to be.

"It really depends on the administration and how willing they are to work with us," Man said. "We certainly won't give up, so it really depends on the administration to listen and to act and really to follow through Jefferson's ideals of acting honorably."