College protestors are right. We should know what we own.

College protestors are right. We should know what we own.

As they were grieving the loss of life in the bombardment of the Gaza Strip, college students across the US learned that they had been indirectly tied to the weapons industry through their university endowments. Many began protests and set up encampments on school grounds earlier this year to call for a reexamination of university investment policies, including disclosure and divestment.

It’s estimated that US universities have holdings worth $850 billion combined, some of which is certainly invested in weapon makers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrup Grumman. University endowment money is usually managed by third-party external managers and placed in different investments, everything from private equity to plain vanilla funds used to track an index–the S&P 500, for example. We know that defense contractors are present in broad-based index funds.

Although they have varied, the general responses from schools have been a refusal to come to terms with their questionable holdings. But why? US universities have already divested from companies involved in controversial businesses like tobacco, fossil fuels, and private prisons.

In a statement explaining the University of California decision to divest from fossil fuels, the Board of Regents CIO said in 2019 that—as fiduciaries—they believed that “hanging on to fossil fuels is a financial risk.” Other schools have made similar statements to justify their own investment policies: Fiduciaries need to maximize financial returns and minimize risks in the interest of beneficiaries.

If so, then divesting from weapons manufacturers seems like a logical thing to do. The reputational risks for weapons manufacturers are clear.

And being a fiduciary does not require an institution to own all investments in the market. Incorporating actively selected, ethical criteria into investment analysis is consistent with fiduciary responsibilities. According to the United Nations Global Compact, failing to consider long-term investment value drivers in investment practice, including social issues, is a failure of fiduciary duty.

Acting in the interest of beneficiaries–in the case of university endowments, teachers and students who benefit from pensions and subsidized tuition–should mean not supporting companies that make weapons used to kill indiscriminately, including those in academia. The Israeli army has destroyed or damaged all 12 universities in Gaza. At least three university presidents and hundreds of deans and professors have been killed.

What to do?

Investors can enact social change if they understand the power they hold in their investment accounts. We have hopeful examples in recent history of asset owners leveraging their financial clout and using ownership to push for social change. But it starts with knowledge. Ask questions of your financial advisor or money manager. Find out what’s in those mutual funds you passively invest in and how they choose to invest.

All people of conscience, not just university students, should be aware that their investments can either allow the status quo to continue or be part of the solution. We can contribute–even in small ways–to changing the culture. That can mean divesting. It can also mean pushing an investment firm to reassess how they vote on corporate resolutions. Or even filing one of your own to press for change from within as an activist investor. All of these are ways to stand against injustice, but it starts with knowing what you own. At least we can then minimize our complicity in the tragedy of indiscriminate killing.

Joshua Brockwell is investment communications director at Azzad Asset Management, a registered investment advisor in Falls Church, Virginia. As a matter of policy, Azzad does not own the stock of companies that manufacture weapons.

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