Last Friday as the Dalai Lama prepared to speak at Middlebury College an emailed press release announced that the college would be quote "fully divesting its endowment from war."
Without providing many details it suggested that Middlebury had decided to use the occasion of the Tibetan leader’s visit to announce it would no longer invest in companies working in the defense industry.
The announcement quoted college officials, including President Ron Liebowitz. It turned out the press release was a hoax and the college quickly disavowed it.
But for the students who eventually came forward as the authors of the announcement, it highlights what they see as an issues that need to be addressed.
In what they call a ‘coming clean’ letter the five Middlebury students apologize for misleading those who received the announcement but say they hope their effort brings more pressure on the college to change its investment policies.
The students are Molly Stuart of Santa Cruz, California, Jay Saper of East Lansing, Michigan, Jenny Marks of Bedford, New York, Sam Koplinka-Loehr of Ithaca, New York and Amitai Ben-Abba, from Israel.
They say the fake news release was inspired by the political theater of The Yes Men.
"We felt it was the best way to call out the contradictions of our administration in order to cut through the hypocrisy that we saw taking place,"says Stuart.
The students say the contradictions lie in what they see as the emphasis the college places on the importance of being good global citizens while not applying the same values to its investments.
They’re calling on Middlebury to bar investments in arms and defense contractors as well as fossil fuel producers.
The students say calling for the school to change its investment policies is in the spirit Dalai Lama’s talk to Middlebury student last week when he urged them to make this century one of peace by taking action to bring about change.
In a written statement on Tuesday the college said, "We do not believe…that the Dalai Lama’s message about working toward a more peaceful world sanctioned the use of deceptive means to achieve desired ends."
The students say their real goal is to shine a spotlight on investment practices at Middlebury.
Middlebury’s endowment provides about 20% of the college’s annual operating budget. As of last June 30th it was valued at $881 million.
The college says the earnings from the endowment "support the College’s diverse programs and initiatives including scholarships and professorships".
In 2010, Middlebury announced a Sustainable Investors Initiative allowing donors to direct that their money is put into socially responsible investments. As of June, those investments totaled less than one percent of the endowment.
Middlebury is not alone.
A study by the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute and the Tellus Institute released last spring observes that the percentage of universities that say they apply any social-responsible criteria to their endowment investments declined from 21% in 2009 to 18% in 2011.
The study found that investments by colleges and universities based on environmental, social and corporate governance considerations has fallen off since the 1960s and 1970s and is fairly narrow in scope – for example divesting of tobacco stocks.
The study says one reason for the decline is a shift over time in how endowment investments are managed. Colleges like Middlebury have moved away from investing in directly held stocks and bonds into indirect and co-mingled assets, which limits their ability to screen investments
Last year Middlebury students attended a meeting hosted by the treasurer’s office in which the college’s investment strategy was explained. The college says it plans to continue the dialogue.
The students responsible for last week’s hoax say they all attended the meeting and left disappointed that officials did not provide details on where the investments were being made and that defense industry firms and other businesses aren’t screened out.
"Without those screens not only could we be investing in military contractors and fossil fuels, but almost assuredly we are," says Koplinka-Loehr
Ben-Abba says as someone from a place embroiled in conflict, "It is unpleasant to think that I come here and my tuition, the chairs I sit on, the paychecks of my professors are coming from the oppression of Palestinian people and victims of war throughout the world."
Student concerns over college investments are often hot topics on campus. Divestment reached a peak during the anti-apartheid era when many institutions shunned investments in companies doing business in South Africa.
Middlebury College scholar in residence and environmental activist Bill McKibben is currently leading an effort to convince schools and religious institutions drop investments in the fossil fuel industry.
The college says it is investigating the press release hoax to determine whether any policies were violated. It may take disciplinary action.