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Students switching activism to boardroom

Lobby for say on endowments

Eliza Wilson at a meeting of the Sustainability Club, where UMass-Boston students discuss investments. Eliza Wilson at a meeting of the Sustainability Club, where UMass-Boston students discuss investments. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

In a quiet conference room, a group of UMass-Boston student activists huddled around a boardroom table last week for a strategy session. They debated which administrator to buttonhole, and which to befriend. They brainstormed ideas for a PowerPoint presentation to persuade the board of trustees to give them more say over how the university invests its endowment.

Notably absent from the conversation were the traditional calling cards of campus activism: fiery, uncompromising rhetoric, angry protests outside presidents' offices, mock funeral processions, sit-ins and "die-ins."

This is student activism in the 21st century. Instead of occupying the president's office, students who want change on campus are angling for a seat at the boardroom table. Using PowerPoint presentations and research proposals, they are persuading colleges to adopt more socially conscious investment policies. In turn, universities are giving students more of a say on investments.

"Student activism today has a much more hard-nosed, realistic edge," said Zachary Mason, an Amherst College senior who led a successful campaign last year to get the college to divest from Sudan. "We're not taking over administration buildings; we're walking into the administration building with business suits on."

This corporate style of student activism is gaining momentum. Students from 50 colleges and universities nationwide have opened chapters of the Responsible Endowments Coalition, a national group founded by college students in 2004 that encourages students to work within the system to make change.

The approach is paying dividends. Brown University, after negotiations with its students, plans to invest part of its endowment in mutual funds with an environmental focus. A new student advisory committee at Tufts will begin making recommendations on shareholder measures this fall.

More than 50 colleges and universities have divested from Sudan partly in response to the conciliatory approach of student activists. Students want colleges to invest in progressive companies, avoid firms they see as socially harmful, and use shareholder resolutions to promote corporate reform.

But progress nationwide has been hard-won. About 72 percent of institutions do not consider social responsibility in their investment-management policies, according to a 2006 survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute in Cambridge, said 5 percent of colleges have endowment advisory committees, but student activists are pushing the issue to the fore.

"The traditional Wall Street approach, the 'let the money-managers do their work and call it a day' way of thinking is still there," he said. "But, there's definitely a growing recognition among universities to be more active and engaged shareholders."

At the recent meeting in the UMass-Boston conference room, for instance, students crafted a strategy that resembled a corporate sales pitch more than a pitched battle between protesters and administrators.

"Best way to get anyone's attention is a snazzy PowerPoint presentation," advised Alex Kulenovic, a student trustee.

John Pearson, a recent graduate who led the school's Sustainability Club last year, told the group they should persuade UMass to steer 1 percent of its endowment into community investment. It will not yield big returns, he said, but will generate good press for the school.

The students settled on change-from-within tactics: They would target administrators who could help carry their ideas forward.

"Universities are complicated places, and I think people are getting more sophisticated in knowing what levers to pull," Pearson said.

Colleges also benefit from giving students a seat at the table, students and administrators noted. Alumni are more likely to donate money if they are confident funds will be invested in a socially conscious way, students say, and some prospective students may be drawn to schools with progressive reputations. And in some cases, particularly regarding the atrocities in Sudan, student-backed changes are simply the right thing to do, administrators say.

College administrators said that allowing students to participate in endowment decisions gives them a valuable glimpse into the financial world.

"The goal is to give students real-world investment experience, but with the appropriate amount of oversight and safeguards," said UMass system spokesman Robert Connolly. "It's one thing to read about investment strategies, it's another to put it into practice."

At Wheaton College this spring, students tackled the divestment issue like a "research seminar," said Michael Graca, the college's assistant vice president for communication. Students invited outside specialists to lectures, and presented a detailed divestment proposal to trustees in May. Their argument persuaded the college to pull $60,000 invested in a company doing direct business with Sudan, and find an investment firm that would screen holdings more carefully.

"If all you're doing is trading bumper sticker slogans, you don't get down to doing the real work," Graca said.

Morgan Simon, executive director of the Responsible Endowments Coalition, said student activists today make a point of being well prepared. While student protesters are often a ragtag bunch, Simon borrowed a suit while she was a sophomore at Swarthmore College in 2002 when she went to Lockheed Martin's annual shareholder meeting to urge its board to add sexual orientation to the equal employment opportunity policy.

A few months later, the company did so, and began granting domestic partnership benefits.

"In today's activism you better know how to file a shareholder's resolution," Simon said.

The legacy of the movement to divest from South Africa because of its former policy of apartheid has also helped students. Many of the student activists from that era are now college administrators, and tend to be more sympathetic to students' concerns.

In the 1980s, colleges were far more reluctant to make a stand with investments, said Anthony Marx, president of Amherst College, who fought for divestment from South Africa as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University. Today, things are different.

When students approached Marx last year, he welcomed them into his office: "There was no need for sit-ins. We'd all learned about this a generation ago."

Some observers said the careful, collaborative approach signaled a general decline in campus activism. Students who are barely protesting the protracted, unpopular war in Iraq are more willing to accept incremental change than past generations, some said.

But Mason said the students' success at Amherst stemmed from their willingness to compromise. "You have to have modest, attainable goals, not something pie in the sky," he said. "The stereotype is a bunch of hippie protesters banging on drums to stop the war. We still have the same starry-eyed ideals, but will readily accept tangible, incremental change. We're not looking for instant revolution."

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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