This week students at the University of South Florida are voting on a referendum that urges the university to take its money out of three categories of investments: fossil fuels, private prisons and companies that commit human rights violations. USF has ignored it in the past when students voted for similar divestment proposals. But that isn’t discouraging one student-organizer. Justin Winn is a second-year Master’s student in Anthropology at USF Tampa.
“The referendum says that the university needs to divest, both it’s endowment and it’s operating funds from companies that are complicit in human rights violations, private prisons, and fossil fuel companies.”
Why did you pick those three topics? What is it about fossil fuel, private prisons, and human rights that you think it’s important for university to divest from?
“I think that’s a really important question and on the surface may seem like some disparate issues, but, they’re all, in fact very closely related, in the sense that so much of our efforts to go to war in other parts of the world are predicated on, you know, a particular resource like fossil fuels. And then, the military industrial complex in turn, as we have ramped up over the years in all our efforts to prosecute these wars, as their equipment becomes more obsolete with each new generation of weapons that we produce, the military will sell those weapons back to municipalities and private security operations, domestically, and that just feeds into this exacerbating the incarceration of people, and particularly, I think, it’s unethical in private prisons.”
A little more than a year ago, I asked the USF Foundation about whether they were going to listen to the students and to– there was a similar divestment petition that was put forward and the Board of the USF Foundation wrote in a statement, and this is a quote: “The USF Foundation will not divest investments or alter the investment policy or process based on requests from individuals or groups.” And I guess there they were talking about “groups” being the students at USF. So, in the past, they’ve said ‘Forget what the students want.’ What makes you think that they might listen to you this time or what would give you some optimism that would make you try again?
“Well, so one thing that’s also exciting about having these three particular issues is that at this point, there’s a coalition of different student groups; Black, Muslim, and environmental in this case, that have come together. So, it’s a growing movement that when these kind of referendums do go before the students, it gets more popular every time.
“We fully expect that the student body will vote in favor of our referendum. We just wanna show the administration that we’re not going away and every time we come back, we’ll be stronger.”
The people who are responsible for making the investments might say ‘Look, it’s our job to make money for the university. To take the money that we have and to make more money, maybe we’ll invest in fossil fuels or private prisons or human rights abusers, but, it’ll make more money for the university.’
“Well, so interestingly, it’s not the case particularly with fossil fuel investments that the bulk of assets that fossil fuel companies have; the value of those assets lies in the reserves. That is, what’s in the ground still and what’s in the ground is rapidly losing value as divestment movements to divest funds of fossil fuel companies, becomes more and more popular globally–as difficult as it is to do so in the United States, those assets are losing their value. There’s been $5.5 Trillion dollars of assets, globally, that have been divested of fossil fuel funds. That speaks directly to the value of their underlying assets: the reserves. So, that’s not something we can look into the future and say, ‘This is going to continue to pay dividends.’
“And beyond that, not all investments are created morally equal. As the University of South Florida attracts talent from all over the world to do important research in all kinds of fields, what’s the point of all this world-class research if we’re not going to be able to use the findings of it to improve the policies we use to administer and self-govern?”
Finally, if there are USF students out there who are listening and they have not yet voted, what would you do to try to convince them to see things your way?
“So, people would be against this for different reasons, in part because there is a few separate issues involved, but, I would just really encourage people to take a look at the fact that, there’s really, over the course of democratic and republican administrations in Washington, these are three particular issues that only seem to be coming more entrenched over the years and there’s less the likelihood that, you know we’re continuing to feel that we can vote against these companies or change these policies in any way through a ballot box. Divestment offers us a tool that we can resist these kind of policies.”
A USF spokesperson said nobody was available for an interview. He gave a lengthy written response by email, which points out the student referendum is not binding on the University. Part of the statement reads: “Since the issue was already considered and voted on by the USF Foundation, it will not be revisited at future meetings.” It also quoted repeated the 2014 statement saying “The USF Foundation will not divest investments or alter the investment policy or process based on requests from individuals or groups.”
Here’s a link to more WMNF News story about divestment.
USF’s full statement is below the video.
Here’s the statement from USF spokesperson Adam Freeman:
We don’t have anyone available for an interview at this time, but we can address each of the issues you have mentioned.
-In regards to divestment:
Any referendum that goes through the student elections process is non-binding and requires no action from the university. The issue of divestment has been proposed numerous times since 2013, either through student elections, student petitions or Student Government, often led by the same student organization or group of students.
In 2014, after receiving a petition from the USF Students for Justice in Palestine organization calling for the university to divest from certain companies, the USF Foundation’s Investment Committee placed the issue on a meeting agenda for consideration.
At that time the committee passed a resolution and issued a statement, which included the following: “The USF Foundation investment policy, process and investments will continue to be guided by its mission, fiduciary responsibilities and state or federal law or regulation. The USF Foundation will not divest investments or alter the investment policy or process based on requests from individuals or groups.” The full statement can be found here.
Since the issue was already considered and voted on by the USF Foundation, it will not be revisited at future meetings.
The USF Foundation’s annual financial statement and other annual reports are posted on its website and the Foundation’s board holds numerous public meetings throughout the year. The Foundation also makes an annual presentation to the USF Board of Trustees regarding its investment portfolio. The most recent presentation took place in November 2016.
In addition, the USF Foundation’s 2015-16 Investment Prospectus outlines the Investment Committee’s asset management method of selecting managers, rather than stocks. A more detailed explanation can be found here.