Date March 22, 2019
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Letter from President Paxson: Responding to divestment referendum vote

University President Christina Paxson: “Brown’s endowment is not a political instrument to be used to express views on complex social and political issues, especially those over which thoughtful and intelligent people vehemently disagree.”

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As part of the annual election process organized by the Undergraduate Council of Students at Brown University, undergraduates voted from March 19 to 21 on a referendum that called upon the University to:

“divest all stocks, funds, endowment and other monetary instruments from companies complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine and establish a means of implementing financial transparency and student oversight of the University’s investments.”

Sixty-nine percent of the students who voted on the question — 27.5 percent of the University’s total undergraduate student population — supported the referendum.

On Friday, March 22, Brown University President Christina Paxson wrote to the Brown community in response to the referendum. The text of her letter is included below.

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Dear Members of the Brown Community,

I am writing in regard to a referendum conducted by the Undergraduate Council of Students that asked undergraduates if the University should “divest all stocks, funds, endowment and other monetary instruments from companies complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine and establish a means of implementing financial transparency and student oversight of the University’s investments.” The referendum was supported by 69% of the 2,810 students who voted on the question (27.5% of the undergraduate student body voted in support of divestment). Although the University is not obligated to take action on this matter, I feel it is important to respond and share my perspective.

I appreciate and respect that members of our community are concerned about the long-standing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. I would like nothing better than to see peace, prosperity and stability for all people who live in the region.

That said, I am opposed to divestment from companies that conduct business in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Brown’s endowment is not a political instrument to be used to express views on complex social and political issues, especially those over which thoughtful and intelligent people vehemently disagree. As a university, Brown’s mission is to advance knowledge and understanding through research, analysis and debate. Its role is not to take sides on contested geopolitical issues.

I have been steadfast in my view that Brown should not embrace any of the planks of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement. In 2013, when a number of academic associations called for academic boycotts of Israel, I made it clear that Brown would not support academic boycotts of Israel or any other country, since doing so would inhibit the open scholarly exchange that is critical for the advancement of knowledge. The previous year, I had rejected a recommendation from Brown’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies to initiate dialogue about possible divestment from companies that do business in the occupied territories, expressing the same view that the endowment is not to be used to assert views on contested social and political issues.

In recent weeks, I have discussed the referendum with many members of the Brown community — students, faculty, staff and alumni. It is very clear that members of our community feel strongly and deeply about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I have been struck by the breadth of views about the best path to a just resolution. Beyond the foundational concern that divestment would be a political act, these conversations have strengthened my conviction that divestment would polarize the Brown community and detract from the inclusive, intellectually-vibrant community we aspire to be.

Many Brown students, faculty, staff and alumni have devoted themselves to the goal of a peaceful and just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I hope that instead of polarizing calls for divestment, the Brown community can continue to engage in productive discourse on this issue through our teaching, research and contributions to diplomacy.

On the issue of financial transparency in the University’s investments, I encourage members of the community to read the recent op-ed in the Brown Daily Herald written by the leaders of Brown’s Investment Office, CEO Joseph Dowling, Chief Investment Officer Jane Dietze and Managing Director Joshua Kennedy. In the op-ed, they explain why it is not possible to make public the details of the University’s investments. We are fortunate that the professionals who work in Brown’s Investment Office are committed to maintaining the highest standards of integrity while sustaining the capacity of the endowment to serve Brown’s research and teaching mission far into the future.

Sincerely,

Christina Paxson

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