Beyond Transparency, Towards the Community

By Brett Vetterlein, Community Investment Campaign Organizer

Endowment transparency has been quite a buzzword in the student movement for the last few years, at least it seems to have become one since I joined the “movement” three years ago after becoming an activist at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY. And there’s good reason for that. The endowment is basically the savings account of the university, although instead of being invested in one bank, it is put in various banks, corporations, bonds, mutual funds, and other types of investments. The point of this institution, to put it simply, is to make money. The endowment gets returns on its investment, which can be used in the university’s operating budget, to hire new teachers, staff, to build new buildings, dorms, and athletic facilities, or just put back into the endowment and reinvested.

So why do we care? Because it’s our school, our reputation, and because our tuition is an investment in Fordham. And just like Fordham, we want to see our money used for the right purposes, so we want transparency. We want to know that Fordham isn’t invested in a company like BP, which caused major and most likely irreversible environmental damage to the Gulf Coast, or like Blackwater, the private military contractor which profits off of two unjust wars in the Middle East.

Instead of trying to find out what is in the endowment or where the budget is invested and then trying to change it, we think we have a better way. Why not just try to move the money ourselves out of the big corporate banks and into credit unions and community banks. This way, we know where a large portion of the university’s money is and we know its being used to promote social and economic justice.

Fordham is a private school and thus has no legal obligation to show us the endowment. Believe me, I’ve asked and the administration has no desire whatsoever to let us know how our and the university’s money is being used. Transparency movements are huge undertakings that usually end in compromise at best and a standstill or backpeddling of the campaign at worst. Ask the students from Take Back NYU, the New York University student group which occupied a building last year demanding transparency and wound up getting arrested, suspended, and almost expelled.

I believe we should have transparency, but I also know that here at Fordham University, at this point, that is next to impossible. On top of that, say we actually get transparency and find out Fordham is invested in a company with terrible environmental practices. Then we would have to launch a whole new campaign to either get our university to divest or to write up shareholder proxies and try to change the company within, both of which could be long and arduous processes. We’d have to organize two different movements simultaneously or one after another.

We want our money to be put to good use, so we should make sure it is by getting Fordham to take its money out of the big banks and put them into community ones. This practice is called community investment: getting Fordham to take its cash assets, mainly those of the endowment and of the operating budget (the “checking account” of the university used to pay wages, salaries, bills, and so on), out of whichever corporate bank it's invested in - Bank of America, Chase, etc., the same banks which helped cause our current economic recession, - and reinvest it into Community Development Financial Institutions, namely credit unions and community banks which specialize in providing financial services like loans and credit to individuals and small businesses from low-income communities.

By doing this we are accomplishing a number of things. First, because we got the money moved, we know where it is and what it is being used for. This empowers students and the university community by demonstrating that we have the power to put forth a productive and beneficial initiative with some of Fordham’s money, instead of simply watching it sit in the bank.

Second, we’ve done some good for people who needed help. Fordham is a university that seeks to create “men and women for others,” giving students the tools to make other people’s lives better. By Fordham investing its money in credit unions or community banks, we’ve provided a degree of economic empowerment to the Bronx, an area that has historically been disempowered on so many levels.

Finally, we sent a message to the corporate banks, the CEOs, and hedge fund managers. That message is that we don’t have to use your system. By moving our money we are challenging an economic system set up to only work for those at the top, while ignoring the rest of us. When we move our money we tell the big banks that if they won’t give us what we need we’ll find it elsewhere.

It is time to move beyond just transparency. If we want a more democratic university, if we want a better economic system, if we want justice for the Bronx, then we want community investment. We want Fordham to move its money away from the big banks and into our community.

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