An Adaptive Institution

by Dave Warnock, Midwest Student Organizer

The recent wave of demonstrations in the Middle East has me thinking about how quickly new issues can arise in the public eye. Although the events leading up to the demonstrations in the Middle East had been long building, the American public was still caught off-guard. This surprise element has implications that this has for the progressive movement, not simply for this event, but in general. My thinking is that our strength as a movement derives largely from putting systems in place to handle surprise.

This is one of the things I like about working on Endowment issues is that our efforts can focus on structural matters more than on individual issues. Here at Washington University, we put a lot of thought into the ability for the Committee on Investor Responsibility (CIR) to adapt towards the issues of the future. Our thinking was that, eventually there will come a day when today’s issues, such as climate change, will have been solved, but something will most certainly take its place. So the question becomes, how to prevent the CIR Committee of the future from resting on its laurels.

I offer this as a suggestion. We gave our CIR the explicit charge of investigating the “Campus Consensus” on an annual basis. The goal is to see that the issues that students care about are adopted by the CIR and acted upon automatically. It leaves the door open for activists to demonstrate that their causes have the support of the University public, both in the present and in the future.

However, truth be told, though, this was not the optimal way to go. It would have been better to have individuals approach the committee with the issue they care about directly. This is an extra obstacle that one would need to overcome to get action by the CIR. If you have the political wherewithal to push this approach, I recommend it as the first choice. But I must admit, that we agreed to “trade the pubic option” to get the Committee passed in broad.

I’m not too discouraged, though. I have confidence in the skills of Washington University’s progressive organizers to meet the more challenging standard. They have followed the structural change to the University very closely, and they seem prepared to handle the challenge. The most important part was preserved: the CIR is obliged to keep tabs on the concerns of the campus, which will provide for its adaptability. A Committee on Investor Responsibility cannot simply be entrusted to work on timely matters without codified prodding. So my advice is to use this approach as a compromise in negotiation with your Investment Office. For us, it proved to be our best alternative.

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