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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Email Sparks Controversy

On Oct. 19 the College charged five students with violations of College Handbook policies, related to their involvement in the co-authorship of a mock press release that was sent to hundreds of students, faculty and staff and a number of local media outlets on Oct. 12.

The students, Molly Stuart ’15.5, Jay Saper ’13, Jenny Marks ’14.5, Sam Koplinka-Loehr ’13 and Amitai Ben-Abba ’15.5, have indicated that they will choose to defend themselves against the charges at an open Judicial Board hearing — the first public hearing in recent memory.

The hearing is slated to occur at 3 p.m. on Nov. 1 at a yet to be determined location, and will be overseen by the Community Judicial Board (CJB), comprised of trained students, faculty and staff, as is outlined by the College Handbook policies.

If the students are convicted, the CJB will decide upon individual sanctions for the group members. Possible repercussions for nonacademic violations to College Handbook policy, as are alleged in this case, range from verbal or written reprimands to expulsion from the College.

The charges issued to the students relate to alleged violations of Middlebury’s Community Standards policy and alleged breaches to the Responsible Use of Computing and Network Services and Facilities policy.

Over the past week, local media outlets including Seven Days, Vermont Digger and Vermont Public Radio have all covered the press release incident.

Sequence of Events

The charges facing the five students stem from their co-authorship of a self-described “satirical” press release.

Over the span of a few hours, hundreds of students, staff and faculty members, as well as a selection of local media outlets received an email from a Gmail account associated with the sender name “Office of Communications,” with the subject line “Middlebury College Divests from War in Honor of Dalai Lama Visit.”

The mock release stated that “Tim Schornak” of the “Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee” was to be contacted for further details on the announcement — a fictitious official from a non-existent committee. A telephone number was also provided where the official could allegedly be reached. When called, the number led to an official phone company recording, indicating a non-working number.

Throughout the evening, community members reacted to the news — many erroneously believing that the communiqué was an official release sent from Middlebury’s actual “College Communications” office.

On Oct. 14, in response to the mock press release, Vice President for Academic Affairs Timothy Spears sent an email to all students, staff and faculty explaining that the “message was a hoax, and that neither the email nor the press release it contained came from Middlebury College or its Communications Office.”

On Oct. 16, the five students posted a “coming clean” letter at various locations across the campus and online at go/compassion, identifying themselves by name and class year as the co-authors of the press release.

They co-signed the letter as the “Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee,” a self-described “group of students who are concerned that the College embraces practices inconsistent with its own proclaimed values.” In the letter, the five students called for greater endowment transparency and urged the College to divest from arms manufacturers, military contractors and fossil fuel companies.

Though many have interpreted the group’s two actions as separate acts — or have interpreted the “coming clean” letter as a response to the pressure exerted by the administration following the press release — the group explained that they crafted both letters simultaneously, and believe the two communiqués to be two separate parts of one whole action.

Stating Their Beliefs

In their open letter to the community, the students stated that they believed that the school’s investment structure was inconsistent with the College’s values and mission statement.

“Our intent was to bring attention to the unsettling reality that Middlebury has millions of dollars invested in industries of violence, while we appear to stand for universal compassion and peace,” they wrote.

The group also cited the College’s lackluster grades on endowment transparency as reported by the College Sustainability Report Card, published by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, as another motivating factor for their action.

In the six report cards since the inception of the sustainability ranking system in 2008, the College has received no better than a C grade with respect to transparency. While some other institutions have similarly struggled in this category in recent years (including Bates College and Williams College) other institutions, including Amherst College and Brown University, have received As and Bs for endowment transparency.

A Call for Transparency

Chair of the Board of Trustees Marna Wittington explained that board members were “disappointed” by the group’s actions.

“I think that one of our values is integrity, and integrity in communication,” she said. “I think we have a lot of tolerance for disagreement, but I don’t think we have a lot of tolerance for misrepresenting yourself, and taking someone else’s identity and using it as your own.”

The Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee members, however, reject the notion that they are guilty of impersonation.

“We are the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee. We sent the letter as the College Office of Communications for the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee … some students accused us of identity theft, but that’s preposterous. We didn’t violate anything according to United States law,” said Ben-Abba.

Koplinka-Loehr explained that the group did not use the College’s seal or letterhead. He also stated that the group repeatedly referenced the College Handbook, seeking to avoid any action that could be considered a violation of College policy. Dean of the College Shirley Collado and Associate Dean of Judicial Affairs and Student Life Karen Guttentag spoke to the Campus for this article, but could not comment on the specifics of the case, as it is an open investigation being pursued by the College.

 Socially Responsible Investment Club Reacts

The Socially Responsible Investment club (SRI) is recognized by the College community as another on-campus group seeking greater endowment transparency.

Current SRI Co-President, Ben Chute ’13.5, explained that while his group was broadly supportive of the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee’s message, some SRI members were critical of the action taken by the five students.

“Initially, SRI was pretty shocked [by the email.] Many members were not happy about it. I think it is not consistent with the strategy that we have been pursuing, which has been to educate people and have a thoughtful, reasonable, straight-forward and honest conversation about the ethics of our endowment and how we can make it better,” Chute said.

“The principles that were expressed by this group are things that many of us largely identify with, and support and sympathize with … While I would have done it another way, I can’t take anything away from what they’ve done,” he said.

The SRI president explained that the action came at a difficult time for the group, who had seen a number of “big wins” in their collaborative efforts with the administration to bring greater fiscal transparency.

Chute described that just weeks before, the College had, for the first time in the school’s history, decided that they would allow a student liaison from the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) to act as a liaison for all Board of Trustee’s Investment Committee meetings “in the foreseeable future”.

Last weekend, Chute served as the first ever ACSRI liaison to a Board Finance Committee meeting. Chute was limited in his capacity to participate in the meeting, serving as a non-voting member with no speaking privileges, (save for a five-minute presentation at the end of the meeting), yet seemed enthusiastic about the creation of the position.

“The Board seems open to hearing suggestions from the student body,” he said.

While the five members of the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee believe that the recent steps taken by the administration are positive, they saw significant limitations in the scope of the measures.

“We see the benefit of using many different tactics, and doing autonomous actions,” said Stuart, “as long as it’s not undermining the work of other groups, which we don’t believe that it was in this case.”

Managing the Endowment

As of June 2012, Middlebury’s endowment was officially estimated at $881 million. The vast majority of this sum is managed by Investure, a company that manages the investments of 12 other organizations — five colleges and seven foundations — with an aggregate portfolio of approximately $8 billion.

By using Investure, Middlebury is endowed with a team of professionals who provide access to investment possibilities comparable to the opportunities available to institutions with larger endowments.

Yet, by using an outsourced investment company, the College loses a level of transparency offered by the in-house management process. While the Middlebury Investment Committee and Board remain actively involved with the decision making process regarding asset allocation, guidelines and strategic changes to the College’s endowments, they are unable to instantly access the records that indicate the companies in which the College invests.

Under this model, it is difficult to accurately screen for investment in arms manufacturers, military contractors or fossil fuel companies.

Koplinka-Loehr believes that it is nearly certain that the College is invested in such companies.

“There is not only the possibility that we are invested in military contractors, there is the certainty that we are invested in military contractors,” he said. “Without screens — because they are the most profitable companies on the market … it is without doubt that we are invested in them,” he said.

Examining the Possibility of Divestment

The student’s press release has led some to question whether divestment is possible given the College’s current investment model. According to Vice President for Finance and Treasurer Patrick Norton, forms of divestment have occurred in the past.

In April 2006, in response to violence in Darfur, the President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz announced in a press release that the Investment Committee, Board of Trustees and the College’s external investment consultant had all reviewed the College’s direct holdings to identify and cease all investment in “any multinational companies that may provide the many factions that constitute the Sudanese Government with substantial financial resources.”

While symbolically significant, no divestment occurred as a result of the initiative, as the College was not invested in any such companies in their direct holdings portfolio.

At the time the College also took steps to try to compel Investure to encourage its managers to employ similar screens when investing the pooled funds.

Norton explained in an email, “The College sent a letter to Investure with a list of companies that Middlebury has identified as prohibited investments.”

Yet, the College Treasurer acknowledged the limitations of the College’s influence over the direct management of the aggregate funds.

“As an investor in comingled funds for which Investure has full management discretion, we recognized that we couldn’t direct specific investment activities of the funds. However, we strongly encouraged Investure to divest securities of any type in these companies that may be part of our portfolio, and to avoid them in the future,” he wrote.

Norton explained that the College has instructed Investure’s financial managers to follow the institution’s Environmental and Social Responsibility Principles, which were adopted last spring. Within this framework Investure seeks to maximize returns while managing risk, according to the Treasurer.

“It is the financial sustainability of the companies in which we are invested that must remain a focus. It is our endowment that funds 20 percent of the operating costs of Middlebury College,” he said.

Students Invite Discussion

SRI will host a discussion in conjunction with the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee and the Divestment Committee (another student group working directly on the issue of endowment transparency) this evening at 8 p.m. in Axinn 219. The Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee and the “growing contingent” of supporters on campus will also hold a general assembly at 4:00 p.m. on Friday in Warner Hemicycle. Both meetings are open to all community members.

The Community Judicial Board hearing for the five accused students is planned for Thursday, Nov. 1 at 3 PM in Dana Auditorium.