Your UT tuition is used to finance necessities like the construction and maintenance of facilities, programming activities vital to a budding academic institution, and the salaries of administration, faculty and staff, et cetera. Few students realize, though, that UT also uses a portion of its funds, annually, to invest in domestic and foreign companies. UT invests for the same reason that any other person or entity invests: return on investment. Administrative officials take a pool of UT dollars, invest it in a new or established company, and wait for the company to grow and profit. As a company does well, the value of UT's shares in that company increase and, presumably, UT uses this increase in value somewhere down the road to finance the university's necessities listed above. If done tactfully, the financial results for our university can be great.
But it's also important to remember that by investing in companies and corporations UT is affecting the livelihood of these companies. Businesses need investments to get off the ground and to continue to grow throughout their lifespan in the market. By holding shares in a company, UT is supporting that company. And supporting a company indirectly means supporting the practices of that company.
In the past few months there has been a movement among college environmentalists to push institutions of higher education to divest from fossil fuel energy companies. As recently as mid-November, 72 percent of Harvard students voted to divest Harvard University's $30.7 billion endowment from fossil fuel companies. Many other schools have followed suit and the spring will likely see more college campuses voting to divest from fossil fuels.
All this buzz about higher education divestment enhanced my curiosity: in what sorts of companies does UT invest?
Unfortunately, a quick look at UT's FY2010 investment portfolio yields cautionary results, and not just because UT has shares in more than a handful of fossil fuel companies.
As of FY2010, UT had shares in almost half of Business Insider's "15 Worst Companies for the Planet": Allegheny Energy Incorporated, ConAgra Foods, American Electric Power, Bunge Limited, Southern Company, and Archer-Daniels-Midland.
We also had holdings in Tyson Foods Incorporated and KeyCorp, both of which made the ranks of Newsweek's 2011 "Least Green Companies in America." Most of the companies on these lists were ranked so highly not simply because they produce or utilize fossil fuels, but because most of them have terrible water and air pollution records. Many of these companies have even contributed to toxic and hazardous pollution, dealing serious harm to the health and safety of local residents.
Perhaps the worst companies, from a social and environmental perspective, in which UT holds shares are some of the most infamous in the entire country: Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Dow Chemical and Pfizer. In addition to their well-known and horrendous pollution records, which have resulted in some of the most historic habitat destruction ever, Exxon Mobil and Chevron both have pending lawsuits for human rights abuses abroad. Chevron has been accused of killing, torturing and enslaving locals in Burma and Nigeria, and Exxon Mobil has been accused of dealing similar human rights violations in Indonesia. International intellectual property law has enabled Pfizer to charge unreasonably high prices for HIV/AIDS drugs in sub-Saharan Africa, and controversy has continued to surround the company ever since.
Clearly, UT's investment portfolio is condemnable on ethical, and not just environmental, grounds, and solving the issue will take more than a simple "divest from fossil fuels" approach. As a UT student, you have a stake in the investments of our institution. Like over 40 universities that have already done so, UT needs to establish some sort of committee on investor responsibility, which would need robust student representation, to address these issues.
— Eric Dixon is a senior in philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.