To Be or Not To Be Political
Can a college with an annual budget of $56 million and an endowment of nearly $400 million remain aloof from ideological considerations when it makes purchases or invests funds? Should it refrain from taking stands on the pressing political questions of the day?
At a Reed Union in February attended by approximately 100 students and members of the faculty and staff, President Colin Diver and trustee Steven McGeady ’80 argued that not only can Reed maintain political neutrality, it should.
Diver said the college should take public positions only in the direct interest of Reed or higher education—on issues such as financial aid and affirmative action, for example—but not in its role as “purchaser, investor, landowner, [or] employer.”
In recent years, activists have pressed Reed to, among other things, boycott Coca-Cola for alleged labor violations in Colombia, divest from companies that do business with Sudan and Israel, buy green energy, and support gay marriage. Diver argued that in each case, reasonable people could differ on the facts and the proper course of action. The college’s role, he said, is to foster free and vigorous inquiry, not endorse any particular position.
Several students challenged the notion that any operational decisions of the college can be truly neutral. Reed as an institution of higher learning wouldn’t exist if it were not for Reed as a business, argued panel member John McCutchen ’08. If the trustees invest the college’s endowment funds “solely to maximize profit,” he said, “[they] are making politically ethical decisions.”
Diver said the college would not knowingly invest in businesses involved in enterprises such as organized crime or pornography. But he rejected the suggestion that Reed join an anti-sweatshop coalition that monitors manufacturers of products for sale on college campuses. “It all depends on how you define sweatshop,” said Diver. “What is often being sold as sweatshop guidelines is actually an attempt to impose American standards of law on third world countries.
“I can probably find a violation of the law by every company we do business with,” he
McGeady said even without specific knowledge of Reed’s investments, students and alumni can bring pressure to bear. “There’s nothing wrong with agitating for the college to take a position on something,” he noted, adding that the trustees shouldn’t necessarily acquiesce. “The trustees,” he said, “are charged with stewardship of the college, and it's on a decades-long horizon.”
Several students involved in labor activism argued that the college should join a boycott of Coca-Cola (Swarthmore recently joined 10 other colleges and universities in the boycott, while the University of Michigan withdrew its support). “If you’re presented with [evidence that] Coca-Cola is performing these human rights violations, and you refuse to take action, aren’t you complicit?” asked one student.
“You and everyone on campus has the ability to not buy the product and convince others not to buy it,” McGeady responded. “But Reed doesn’t consume Coca-Cola, students do. What the institution is qualified to do is deliver an educational experience. I don’t think it’s qualified to take positions on these other issues.”
Student body president Lauren Rother ’07 said students should look to their own consumer decisions before belaboring the college’s. “I think it should be way more disturbing not that the institution is supporting Coke, but that the student body is.”
Another student complained that “the college doesn’t provide a way to actualize what we have learned about political injustice—you can go actualize it somewhere else.”
Diver said that’s the way it should be. “I don’t see our job as either to protect or to attack the status quo,” he said. “It is to liberate minds.”