September 27, 2010

Conscientious Investment

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This past Thursday, the Student Assembly unanimously passed the Conflict Free Campus Resolution and sent an additional demand letter to Paul Gould, chairman of Cornell’s Investment Committee. We commend the S.A. for bringing to light the issue of conflict minerals and urging the University to take a leading role in a nationwide collegiate conflict-free campaign.In March 2007, Cornell barred investment of its endowment assets in oil companies currently operating in the Sudan in response to the genocide in Darfur. President David Skorton, along with then-Provost Biddy Martin and then-Vice Provost for International Relations David Wippman declared: “The magnitude of the crisis in Darfur represents a moral challenge that cannot be ignored.” Today, the University is faced with a similar moral challenge — the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo.Violence in this central African state has claimed the lives of over 5.4 million people over the past 12 years. Much of the violence stems from the conflict between ethnic groups that has persisted in the region since the eruption of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Despite numerous cease-fires and the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission in the world, violence and anarchy continue to plague eastern Congo, where mass rape is used as a weapon of war to psychologically destroy and paralyze communities.Such instability and destruction has created an environment in which armed groups partake in the illegal trade of tin, tantalum, tungsten — “the three T’s” — and gold to electronic companies in the west, generating hundreds of million dollars a year, which in turn funds continued violence in the region. Some electronics companies require their suppliers to pledge that they are using conflict-free minerals, but there is no way to verify that pledge. Yet, nearly every device that collects an electrical charge — laptops, cell phones, MP3 players — contains one of these metals whose sale is likely funding violence in Congo.As we have seen with the University’s recent actions to influence Nike’s and Russell’s labor relations, Cornell can have the purchasing and investing power to influence the business practices of large corporations. Calling upon electronic companies to take the necessary steps to remove conflict minerals from their supply chain, thereby avoiding indirect funding of this armed conflict, would be yet another proactive and forward-thinking use of the University’s significant influence. Given the widespread use of conflict minerals in nearly all electronics products at this time, we recognize that a total change in purchasing practices is unlikely. However, as conflict-free minerals become more regularly available, we urge the University to institute a policy requiring Cornell Information Technologies — with its $50 million dollar yearly budget — to purchase products from conflict-free companies.With regards to its investment practices, Cornell should consider following the Stanford University Investment Committee, which in April approved a measure to invest only in businesses that are conflict mineral-free, as reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission. It is time for Cornell to join Stanford with respect to investment in conflict-free companies and urge other colleges and universities to do the same. As a collective unit, the United States higher education community holds significant economic influence that can feasibly impact the supply decisions of technology companies.However, it is important to remember that such ethical decisions are not dependent upon the University administration alone; students have a role to play as well. Introducing the resolution was a good start, but continued advocacy and more widespread action from the student body is needed to bring about significant change in this often-overlooked region.