Vanderbilt students win divestment from EmVest, United States, 2012-2013

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Timing
Time Period:  
February
2012
to
February
2013
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Nashville, TN
Location Description: 
Vanderbilt University
Goals: 
Campaigners demanded “full and immediate divestment from Emergent Asset Management, a written and public apology to the communities threatened by land-grabbing, a binding Ethical Investing policy to be drafted jointly by students, faculty, alumni, and administrators, to make our endowment transparent and ensure that investments like this one cannot happen again” (“land grabs and Vanderbilt pamphlet.doc”).
 

Following the rise of global food prices in 2007-2008, international investors began buying or leasing large tracts of land in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. In these deals, called the “Great Land Grab,” local governments and private landholders sold over 203 million hectares of land. Organizations, such as the Oakland Institute, have brought these exchanges to public attention through studies and media coverage.

On 8 June 2011, The Guardian published an article, informed by an Oakland Institute study, describing the role of EMVest (previously Emergent Asset Management) in land speculation in sub-Saharan Africa. EmVest, according to the Oakland study, had purchased rights to over 100,000 hectares of land in these sub-Saharan countries for less than market value. The London-based company would grow crops on this land and sell them primarily for export. EmVest provided its investors with returns around 25% per year, since production factors, including irrigation and labor, were relatively cheap. The reporter revealed that at the time Vanderbilt University was one of EmVest’s major investors. Upon reading the article, some graduate students sent it to members of the Vanderbilt anthropology department. The Vanderbilt administration formed a committee of three administrators to consider its investment in EmVest.

On 20 June 2011 Lesley Gill, the chair of Vanderbilt’s department of anthropology, drafted a letter to Vanderbilt Vice Chancellors Brett Sweet and Matthew Wright requesting for verification of the school’s investments in EmVest. Forty-seven faculty members from Vanderbilt and its peer institutions signed the letter. In it, Gill likened EmVest shares to 1980s investments in Apartheid South Africa. She referenced the national divestment movement that successfully pressured some universities to withdraw their endowments from companies operating in South Africa. Despite a multi-year divestment campaign, Vanderbilt had not divested from apartheid.

The Vanderbilt administration did not comment publicly to the faculty letter. Vanderbilt’s Chief Investment Officer confirmed to the Oakland Institute that $26 million of its $3.4 billion endowment was invested in EmVest. He went on to justify these investments in private correspondences with faculty, referencing their high returns and EmVest’s social responsibility projects.

On 8 September 2011, a Vanderbilt student talked on the phone with Anuradha Mittal, director of the Oakland Institute, regarding Vanderbilt’s investments in EmVest. Mittal recommended that students pursue divestment from Emvest and investment screening against other land-grabbing corporations.

The three-person administrative committee met with Chancellor Matthew Wright, the Chancellor overseeing investments. In the meeting, Wright spoke favorably of EmVest. After the meeting, the Board committee presented a summary of their report to the Faculty Senate, in support of continued investment in EmVest.

After that phone call, Vanderbilt undergraduate students began meeting weekly in the home of a graduate student and launched a campaign demanding “full and immediate divestment from Emergent Asset Management, a written and public apology to the communities threatened by land-grabbing, a binding Ethical Investing policy to be drafted jointly by students, faculty, alumni, and administrators, to make our endowment transparent and ensure that investments like this one cannot happen again” ("Landgrabbing and Vanderbilt"). Student campaigners emphasized that EmVest displaced peasant farmers and in so doing jeopardized the farmers’ ability to sustain themselves. The students contrasted EmVest’s business practices with Vanderbilt’s values of social responsibility, and insisted that Vanderbilt adopt an Ethical Investing policy. The direct action student group Vanderbilt Students for Nonviolence, founded in 2005, took on the campaign.

In late November, campaigners met with Provost McCarty and presented their demands to him and insisted that that McCarty arrange for them to meet with Chancellor Matthew Wright, who oversaw Vanderbilt’s investment. During this meeting McCarty stated that students should not engage with investment policy and dismissed their proposal of an Ethical Investing Policy. McCarty referred to a confidential internal report released by the administrative committee in favor of EmVest. McCarty did schedule a meeting between the students and Wright.

Before the end of the semester, students had a two-hour meeting with Vice Chancellor Matthew Wright. Wright stated that Vanderbilt did not have a policy for extending ethical considerations onto decisions about how to invest the university’s endowment. Wright explained that he had visited EmVest’s operation in Matuba, Mozambique. Students asked Wright whether he had spoken with any local peasant farmers on his twelve-day visit; Wright said that he had not.

On 8 February 2012, Vanderbilt Students for Nonviolence held a teach-in in their administrative building’s foyer. During the teach-in, approximately forty students and a few faculty members gathered to engage with Vanderbilt’s investment in EmVest. The director of the Oakland Institute joined by video-conference. To accompany this sit-in, the campaigners submitted a letter to Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, expressing their discontent with Vanderbilt’s lack of transparency about its investments. They demanded that Vanderbilt publicly divest and not reinvest in EmVest or HEI Hotels. After a student campaign, Vanderbilt had privately divested from HEI Hotels. Later that semester, administrators confirmed that Vanderbilt did not plan to reinvest in HEI Hotels.

Chancellor Zeppos replied to the students’ letter on 16 March 2012. He referenced the administration’s moral and legal responsibilities involving management of the endowment. He also stressed that EmVest upheld high ethical standards. Zeppos emphasized that this public discussion of an investment was an exception to the board’s policy. He elevated the support of the Faculty Senate, framing it as a natural result of the open dialogue that had occurred.

Vanderbilt Students for Nonviolence and other students set up tents in front of the administrative building that they occupied from March through May 2012. Student groups with other grievances with the Vanderbilt administration joined the tent city, including some campaigning on behalf of campus workers’ rights. On 17 May 2012, students marched to the Board of Managers meeting to deliver a petition with over 300 signatures and a letter to Chancellor Wright reiterating their demands of ethical investment standards and divestment from EmVest.

In the fall of 2012, Vanderbilt Students for Nonviolence continued to publish pieces criticizing Vanderbilt’s investments in EmVest. They did not use any nonviolent action.

Early in the spring semester of 2013, an anonymous member of the Vanderbilt Board of Trustees informed a student of Vanderbilt Students for Nonviolence that Vanderbilt no longer was invested in EmVest. On 13 February 2013, the Vanderbilt Students for Nonviolence and the Responsible Endowments Coalition co-authored a press release announcing that the Vanderbilt administration had divested from EMVest.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Apartheid and HEI Hotels divestment campaigns (1)

Sources: 
“Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa: EMVest Asset Management in Matuba, Mozambique.” Land Deal Brief. June 2011. Oakland Institute. Web. 20 March 2013.

“Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa: Deciphering Emergent’s Investments in Africa.” Land Deal Brief. June 2011. Oakland Institute. Web. 20 March 2013.

“Dispatches from the US Student Movement: March 1st” The Nation. Student Nation. 1 March 2013.

Blume, Zach and Espinola, Rose. “Vanderbilt University Divests from ‘Land Grab’” 13 February 2013. Oakland Institute.

Rogers, Sebastian, and Wibking, Ben. “Guest Column: Cultivating as sustainable endowment.” Inside Vandy. 28 February 2013.

Vidal, John and Provost, Claire. “US universities in Africa ‘land grab’: Institutions including Harvard and Vanderbilt reportedly use hedge funds to buy land in deals that may force farmers out.” The Guardian. 8 June 2011.

Bloomer, Phil. “The Great Africa Land Grab.” 13 November 2012. The Ecologist.

“About Land Grabbing.” Stop Africa Land Grab.com 2013.

"Last Year's Work." Google Document. Vanderbilt Students for Nonviolence. Accessed 20 March 2013.

"Landgrabbing and Vanderbilt." Pamphlet. Vanderbilt Students for Nonviolence. Accessed 20 March 2013.

Blume, Zach. Vanderbilt Student. Personal contact. Contacted 15 April 2013.

Additional Notes: 
I contacted Zach Blume, who provided me with access to the google docs used by the campaigners.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Laura Rigell, 03/24/2013