Pefunctory ethics disappoint

Statement of responsible investing would tackle social injury through inaction

Alexandra Schwenger, ArtSci ’10
Alexandra Schwenger, ArtSci ’10

In my house we have an ugly, tiny little alcove off our kitchen we use to store all the stuff we don’t know what to do with. My housemates and I recently decided to cover it with curtains and, although the view from our sink has now improved immensely, we still know that behind its cheery exterior lies our recycling and last year’s Christmas decorations. Like our curtain, Queen’s new statement of responsible investing does little more than obscure the facts the administration doesn’t want to deal with.

While, in principle, such a statement is very important, the current statement has far too many flaws to be considered effective. It declares that for “special action” (read: any real, substantive action) to take place, there would have to be proof of “social injury.” Social injury—a wonderfully ambiguous term coined by Yale—is in this sense considered to be the activity of a company which negatively impacts consumers or employees or violates domestic or international law. However, while this may sound straightforward, the problem lies in its interpretation.

Yale has had an ethical investing policy since 1972 but has only taken action on corporations committing social injuries on three occasions—the apartheid in South Africa, the genocide in Sudan and tobacco companies. This is due to the fact that, first and foremost, Yale (and every other university) is a corporation and its principal goal is making money. Thus, so long as the profits are pouring in, they don’t care enough to change the status quo unless people protest.

In the past, Queen’s students have played an important role in encouraging the University to rethink its less savory investments in countries such as Sudan. For this tradition of student activism to continue, there have to be clear guidelines as to what the administration considers a social injury worth acting on. However, the Queen’s statement of responsible investing does not answer what circumstances define a social injury because the statement is not meant to explain what constitutes socially-conscious investing. Instead it relies on Queen’s staff, faculty, students, retired employers and alumni to decide for them, through the complaints process. The problem with this is that there is no set standard of socially responsible investing for people to base their judgments on and no way to know if your complaint will constitute a social injury.

Furthermore, the new complaints standards as laid out in the statement are relatively weak. If you objected for some reason to a company the university was investing in, you would have to get 300 people (and not just students but also some of your professors or the departmental secretaries or Queen’s alumni) to sign a petition, which you could then present to the University. Chances are the administration would just write an angry letter to the corporation because it takes an ambiguous “social injury” for Queen’s to do something substantive like divest in the company.

As discouraging as this may be, it provides the University with the wiggle room they need to retain profitable investments. Furthermore, by not publishing a list of the companies in which it invests, the University all but guarantees that no one will be able to find out who they are investing in. Until Queen’s does post its investments, we will not be able to truly be socially responsible.

As a public institution first and foremost, Queen’s has an obligation to be socially responsible. It is hypocritical to suggest that creating a complaints process will suddenly make us socially responsible investors. Further transparency, through publishing the list of corporations we invest in and a setting a standard of what constitutes social responsibility, is required for any real changes to be made.

Statement of responsible investing

•The draft statement on responsible investing, developed by Queen’s senior administrators and the Investment and Pension Committees, was submitted to the Board of Trustees on Oct. 3. Principal Tom Williams has invited feedback from the Queen’s community. Anyone wishing to submit feedback on the draft should send it to the Office of the Vice-Principal (Operations & Finance), by Nov. 1. The final statement will be presented in December.

• The draft proposes that anyone in the Queen’s community be allowed to make a submission identifying a social injury that should influence investment decisions. The submission must be accompanied by a petition of at least 300 individual signatures, with a minimum of 25 signatures from three of the following groups: faculty, administrative and support staff, students, retirees, and alumni.

• A copy of the draft statement can be found at queensjournal.ca

—Alexi White

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