During the two years Samantha Panchèvre (SFS ’19) served on Georgetown University’s Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility, the committee’s passivity and misguided priorities prevented it from operating as she had hoped it would.
CISR, which operates under Georgetown’s Office of Public Affairs, is supposed to discuss issues of social responsibility and whether Georgetown’s investments align with its Jesuit values. In practice, however, the members have lost sight of that goal, prioritizing financial concerns over ethical concerns, according to Panchèvre.
“More often than not, CISR was a barrier to student activism and engagement with the endowment,” Panchèvre said in an interview with The Hoya. “Rather than being a forum for philosophical debate about Georgetown’s role in these issues that extend beyond campus, CISR was there to be a gatekeeper and prevent issues from coming to vote at the school board meeting that the board didn’t want to have to vote on — didn’t want Georgetown to make a statement on.”
CISR aims to ensure Georgetown’s endowment investments align with the university’s values, according to the CISR bylaws and the university’s Socially Responsible Investing Policy. From passivity and an undue emphasis placed on financial concerns to power dynamics and a lack of diversity, however, CISR struggles to achieve that mission in practice.
50 Years in the Making
CISR was established in 1970, spurred by student activists concerned with apartheid in South Africa. The university decided to divest its endowment from U.S. companies doing business in South Africa under apartheid 16 years later.
In recent years, the university has made four divestment decisions, all of which were similarly spurred by student activism. In 2015, the university committed to divest from coal. The original 2014 proposal led by the fossil fuel divestment campaign GU Fossil Free, however, called for full fossil fuel divestment, not just from coal. In 2017, the university announced it would divest from private prisons after a proposal from the campaign GU F.R.E.E. In 2018, the university decided to divest from tar sands. In 2020, the university decided to completely divest its endowment from fossil fuels within the next 10 years.
These recent divestment proposals were possible because of a 2012 revision to CISR’s mandate, which gave the committee the responsibility to review student investment proposals. CISR is currently reviewing a proposal from the GU Prison Divestment Campaign that calls for full divestment from the prison-industrial complex. The current campaign also proposes new ways to make CISR more transparent, including the publication of regular reports.
CISR does not decide where the university invests its endowment, and it also does not decide whether the university will divest from certain companies or industries, according to the CISR Principles and Operating Guidelines. Instead, CISR reviews student investment proposals and votes on a recommendation. If the recommendation is in the affirmative, the proposal goes to the board of directors’ Committee on Finance and Administration and then to the full board of directors for final approval.
Since student proposals are relatively infrequent, most of CISR’s work entails recommending how the university should vote at shareholder meetings on issues ranging from gender equity to sustainability practices at a company.
CISR is made up of 12 members, including a combination of faculty members, presidential appointees, students, members of the Investment Office and the vice president of mission and ministry, according to the CISR Principles and Operating Guidelines.
GUFF’s 2014 proposal for full fossil fuel divestment resulted in divestment from only coal in 2015, but the university’s adopted policy also resulted in the establishment of a socially responsible investing working group organized by the board of directors. The group was formed in 2015, and its efforts, which took place separately from CISR and the Investment Office, culminated in the university’s Socially Responsible Investing Policy that was adopted in June 2017.
The SRI policy deserves credit for the expansive moral vision it sets for the university’s investments, according to Juliette Leader (SFS ’20), the 2018-19 GUSA CISR representative and former GUFF member. (Full disclosure: Leader previously served as a member of The Hoya’s editorial board).
“That is a really historic, landmark document that very few students know about,” Leader said in an interview with The Hoya. “Not all universities have that, and it’s a strong document. It covers a lot of ground. It’s not just about divestment. It covers much more. It has sections on alignment but also impact investing.”
The policy “aligns the university’s investment strategy with its commitment to social justice, protection of human life and dignity, stewardship for the planet and promotion of the common good,” according to the SRI policy.
When Passivity Overtakes Purpose
Despite its envisioned purpose, CISR has developed a culture that values financial concerns over ethical ones. When GUFF presented its 2014 fossil fuel divestment proposal to CISR, the response was alarming, according to former GUFF member Grady Willard (SFS ’18).
“There was a lot of emphasis on the financial aspect, which is not what the committee is supposed to be about,” Willard said in an interview with The Hoya. “I think money is part of what they’re supposed to focus on, but it felt like the overwhelming focus of our presentation with them was the financial aspect, and I remember that being very concerning.”
The SRI policy charges CISR with advising the university on the implementation of the policy. However, CISR did not operate in the spirit of social responsibility and placed undue emphasis on financial concerns during discussion of student proposals, according to Panchèvre.
“It was very much ‘Do we think this proposal will realistically pass at the board level? And if not, why not?’ And that why was usually because of finances, so then the conversation would turn into fiduciary responsibility,” Panchèvre said. “So, we would constantly get derailed from the main purpose, in my opinion, which was to talk about social responsibility.”
During discussion about the tar sands divestment proposal, arguments about the financial side of the proposal made by the university’s Chief Investment Officer and CISR member Michael Barry prevailed over ethical reasoning, despite the mission of the committee, according to Panchèvre.
“Mike Barry’s opinion was never about the theory of social responsibility. It was never philosophical. It was always: This will or will not have an impact on the endowment,” Panchèvre said. “In the case of tar sands, he comes in and says we don’t own any shares in tar sands companies.”
That financial reasoning contributed to the ultimate decision to divest from tar sands, according to Panchèvre.
“After he said that, there was a notable sigh of relief around the room because everyone realized that voting in favor of the tar sands proposal was a no brainer — it would have no impact on the endowment but would make the university look good in that it was a promise to not invest in tar sands in the future,” Panchèvre wrote in a later statement to The Hoya.
The university did not respond directly to a question about Barry’s influence on CISR operations.
Financial reasons played a primary role in Georgetown’s recent decision to divest from fossil fuels, according to Panchèvre. At an Oct. 24 Ignatian Solidarity Network event with other faith-based institutions, Barry outlined Georgetown’s decision to divest from fossil fuels.
“So we got to a place by 2018, 2019 where we started to really appreciate just from a financial investment perspective that the risk-reward opportunity compared to other sectors in the economy for investing in fossil fuel producer companies was not as good compared to elsewhere,” Barry said at the event. “So, we started to think about, okay, we’re not really financially interested in this sector anymore, and then we started to weave back in the climate change issue in looking at sustainability overall.”
However, not everyone with experience with CISR agrees it is wrong to discuss financial concerns in CISR meetings. CISR’s discussion about the 2014 GUFF proposal rightly covered both ethical and financial issues, according to ethics professor and director of Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics Maggie Little, who served as a faculty representative on CISR from 2012 to 2016.
“There was definitely both, but I can say as an ethicist that I endorse that myself,” Little said in an interview with The Hoya. “You absolutely should take into account if it would financially ruin the university to do this. Then, whatever our best intentions, it would be not responsible to our community to do it.”
Although learning about the financial side was helpful to inform whether certain proposals were feasible under specific timelines, financial concerns sometimes overwhelmed discussion, according to Leader.
“I think, technically, CISR is not responsible for considering the finances. I don’t think CISR should be considering the financial,” Leader said. “The whole function of CISR is to make those ethical questions, and there’s no role for CISR to play if the deciding factor is consistently just what will make us the most money. Then we don’t need CISR.”
CISR’s proxy voting recommendations actually carry little weight, according to Panchèvre. If Georgetown is not a majority shareholder in a fund, then its vote is not very influential. Nevertheless, the SRI policy does give room for the university to take more of an active role by authoring its own resolutions as a shareholder.
“In rare cases, the Board may choose to lead or join with others in a public campaign when deemed to be necessary to promote the University’s principles and values,” the policy reads.
Even though this option exists, CISR’s passivity stands in the way, according to Panchèvre.
“We could author our own resolution,” Panchèvre said. “But that’s so much work; that’s so much work to launch a shareholder campaign. Georgetown definitely would never do that. We were always just a voting-type party.”
CISR also is not doing enough to actively ensure the university’s investments align with the university’s values, and passivity was largely a byproduct of the committee’s leadership, according to Leader.
“Honestly, I think it was kind of like: We will do the bare minimum. We will proxy vote, we will engage with proposals, if it is sent to us, but we will limit. We will only ask for feedback from the student body if absolutely necessary,” Leader said. “We are meeting our basic obligations of this committee, and that’s it. We will meet only when we literally, absolutely, only have to meet. We will vote when we literally, absolutely, only have to vote.”
Gendered Power Dynamics
CISR’s failure to operate in the spirit of its mission also extends to more structural issues related to gender and power. The CISR bylaws encourage diverse perspectives and backgrounds to be represented on the committee.
“Consistent with the University’s commitment to promoting diversity, inclusion, and gender equity, CISR will encourage the University entities and officials responsible for appointment to consider the composition of CISR and strive for balanced representation when making their appointments,” the CISR Principles and Operating Guidelines read.
In practice, this goal has not always been achieved. When former GUFF member Caroline James (COL ’16) was on CISR during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, she was one of six women on the committee. However, when Panchèvre was on CISR, only one other woman was ever present at CISR meetings. Similarly, when Leader was on CISR, she was one of three women. For the current 2020–21 school year, CISR has only two women on its 11-member board.
CISR’s lack of diversity created added pressure for certain members to speak for an entire demographic, according to Leader.
“I think it is telling that of the representatives, the university-appointed representatives when I was a student were basically all older white men, and the only different perspectives in that sense being brought to the table were from the student representatives and from the faculty representatives, and I think that puts an undue burden on student representatives and the faculty representatives,” Leader said.
These gender disparities resulted in sexism that, although likely unintentional, gave the impression that women’s voices were not equally valued, according to Panchèvre.
“It was the men talking the most. Definitely my sophomore year, I was genuinely intimidated to be in the room, so I wouldn’t speak up, and it’s not like I was actively encouraged to,” Panchèvre said.
The university was unaware of the impact that gender disparities were having on CISR, according to a university spokesperson.
“Georgetown University is committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. We do not have a record of any reports of any kind of discrimination or harassment involving CISR,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Clutching On to Power
Structural issues of term limits and transparency are other perennial points of concern, according to past CISR representatives. While working on the SRI policy, Willard and Panchèvre unsuccessfully attempted to address these issues, they said.
Student representatives on CISR serve for one yearlong term, with the option to serve additional terms, and non-student representatives serve one three-year term, with the option to serve one additional term, according to the CISR Principles and Operating Guideline. The chair and the secretary, however, are not bound by a term limit.
Law professor James Feinerman has served as CISR’s chair for around 20 years, according to past CISR representatives. The university did not respond to The Hoya’s multiple requests to confirm how long Feinerman has served as CISR’s chair.
GUFF expressed concern about Feinerman’s position as CISR chair throughout its campaign. In a May 2016 letter, GUFF wrote to University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95), stating that CISR violated its bylaws by not meeting during spring 2016, holding no proxy votes during spring 2016 and failing to publish its minutes, according to the letter obtained by The Hoya.
In the letter, GUFF also urged DeGioia to replace Feinerman with a new CISR chair.
“We therefore request that you withdraw your support from the current Chair of the Committee, who is (per the bylaws) responsible for the lack of meetings. We ask that you instead appoint a chair who has the vision and the experience to make this Committee take an active role in considering how Georgetown should invest its money,” the letter read.
Feinerman declined a request for an interview through a university spokesperson.
CISR also did not meet at all during fall 2019, as illustrated by the lack of minutes for that term. Not doing so violates CISR bylaws, which require at least two meetings per semester convened by the secretary or chair.
The constant presence of Feinerman as the chair exacerbated CISR’s passivity, according to Panchèvre.
“The goals were to add term limits because we felt like the membership of CISR was part of the barrier to getting anything done,” Panchèvre said of her efforts. “We wanted Feinerman gone.”
It seemed as if the administration and board allowed Feinerman to continue as chair without term limits because they liked that he screened proposals, according to Panchèvre.
“They knew that James Feinerman would rule CISR as a gatekeeper for the board. He would prevent proposals about things that the board didn’t want to vote on from ever reaching the board, and they liked that,” Panchèvre said. “Other administrators knew that he was the chair, and they didn’t add term limits for him, so clearly other people in the administration just liked that he was chair. They wanted this committee to be somewhat of a gatekeeper.”
The university did not respond directly to a question about CISR’s role in blocking certain proposals from getting a vote on the board of directors.
CISR meetings felt stifled, and Feinerman’s presence created an environment that was not conducive to open discussion, dissenting voices or efforts to further social responsibility, according to Panchèvre.
“He would just come in with his monologue, and be like, ‘This is how I feel, how do you all feel?’ And because of his imposing presence, everyone would just fall in line,” Panchèvre said. “He will always be a barrier to CISR serving a higher purpose.”
Changing leadership is a necessary way to bring in fresh perspectives to any committee, according to James.
“For any committee, period, if you want to avoid it ever looking like a dictatorship, or ever becoming a dictatorship, a great way to help balance out power is to have rotating membership and rotating chairmanship,” James said.
The February 2018 revisions to the CISR bylaws included imposing term limits on faculty and presidential appointees, according to a university spokesperson.
“CISR’s chair and secretary do not have set terms in order to ensure the continuity of CISR’s work,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Term limit rules are inconsistent among the Office of Public Affairs’ other committees. Unlike CISR, the Advisory Committee on Business Practices recommends term limits for everyone, including the chair, and the committee maintains continuity by staggering terms for members, according to the committee’s charter.
Chair term limits are also not uncommon on committees that are similar to CISR at Georgetown’s peer institutions in the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, a coalition of highly selective universities and colleges that meet their students’ full financial need. Nine COFHE member universities have chair term limits for their committees related to socially responsible investing, including Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania.
“The Conscience of Our Endowment”
Beyond new leadership and chair term limits, past CISR representatives have also noted that CISR can improve by being more transparent and more active in upholding its mission.
CISR should be an accountability body that ensures the university is following through on its investment policies, according to Leader.
“We announced that we are going to divest from fossil fuels — are we actually doing that? And I think CISR should be that accountability body. I think CISR has that role, that potential to be the group that’s saying, ‘We are the bottom line for the socially responsible investing policy, we are the people ensuring it is being implemented and we will proactively work with the Investment Office to make sure that’s happening,’” Leader said.
Beyond accountability, Leader also noted CISR should be more accessible to the student body by educating students about the endowment and socially responsible investing. CISR should also go beyond posting its minutes to inform the Georgetown community about its activities and should encourage students to submit proposals.
“Ideally, it is something that is just a normal facet of life; students on campus who are passionate about things can submit proposals, and they get debated, and they get decisions, and it’s not a once-a-year thing but a once-a-month thing,” Leader said.
The prison-industrial complex divestment proposal process has gone well so far, but CISR could stand to be more transparent, according to GUPDC member Abigail Lovell (COL ’21), who was among those who presented GUPDC’s recent investment proposal to CISR.
“It’s unclear to us how often we’re going to get updates, which is one thing we’re kind of working on is what can we, how much can we expect to be in the loop for the rest of the process,” Lovell said in an interview with The Hoya. “Transparency is one of our goals, so we would like to know what’s going on.”
In addition to more student engagement, CISR also should author its own resolutions that other shareholders can vote on instead of passively waiting for proxies to come to them for a vote, according to James.
CISR should seek to take on a larger role to actively ensure the university is truly operating within its values with regard to the endowment, and student engagement is fundamental to attaining that ideal, Leader said.
“CISR is kind of clunky and old and kind of steeped in tradition, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have the potential to have a huge impact on the university,” Leader said. “CISR matters because it is ultimately the conscience of our endowment.”