Exposing Corporate Ties to your School: Intro & Part 1 - Investments

By Mike Ewall (2000)


Note: this article is a follow up on a previous article in SEAC's national magazine titled Picking an Issue: From Service Projects to Issue Campaigns.

There are many ways that corporations can be connected to your school. The following is a guide on how to go about researching and exposing these ties. First, some background...

Public vs. Private: If you attend a public school or college, their records are open to public scrutiny. You have a right to ask for and receive any information. If you attend a private school or college, they are under no obligation to reveal anything. You have no right, even as a consumer of their education product, to find out anything about them, unless the information is available through their connection with a public agency of some sort.

Know your rights: Your state has a law known either as a "Right-to-Know" Act or as an "Open Records" Law. This law should not be confused with the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). While FOIA applies to federal institutions, your state's right to know laws will apply to everything run by your state, county or local governments. This includes state universities, community colleges and public grade schools. You can find a copy of this law in your school's library (ask the librarian… it should be within a large compendium of state laws or "state code"). It might be in the same section as "open meetings" if it's not under "open records," "right-to-know," or "public access to…." Also, you can request copies of state laws from any of your state legislators (look up your state representative or state senator in the government section of your phone book). Finally, you might be able to find stuff by digging through your state's website. Start at www.state.XX.us (replace XX with your two-digit state code).

Be nice to secretaries and other staff: Many of the people you'll be dealing with are secretaries. Secretaries are not your enemy and they can be very powerful friends. They may be low in the campus hierarchy, but they have access to lots of paperwork and documents that you may want. A friendly secretary could easily slip a copy of a document to you or your group if they were sympathetic to your cause. In some cases, even janitors have helped students get things they need by trash-picking documents from the president's office.

Be prepared to be interrogated: No matter who you ask and no matter whether it's public information or not, nine times out of ten, you'll be asked a lot of questions by the people who you're asking for information from. Be prepared to answer: What are your names and how can I contact you? What do you want this information for? What do you plan to do with it? What group are you with? Are you with the newspaper? Is this for a class? Which one?

It's best not to outright lie in response to these questions. If you lie and say it's for a class, you'll have to be ready to say which class and who the teacher is in case they ask. It's okay to be vague or exaggerate a bit, but outright lying may catch you really unprepared and can hurt you if you can't follow it up or if you get caught.

Administrators are generally savvy enough to know that you're not just doing this for no reason or for simply academic curiosity. You can try to say that your not sure what you'll do with the information at this point or you can give some soft answers which only hint at the full range of what you might do with the info. Definitely don't be blunt and say that you're looking for any information you can use to attack the university with. It won't help…

Don't let the interrogation go deeper than you want it to go. Take advantage of pauses in the conversation to change the topic and ask questions of your own.

Put requests in writing: Especially at public schools. Start a paper trail. If you get denied information (no matter whether it's public information or not), ask that the denial be in writing and on letterhead. This paper trail will help future students know what you did and will help you be able to prove that certain things happened.

Format: Try requesting any information in digital form, if possible (sound like you're making it easy for them by allowing them to email it to you). This may work for lists of research grants, investments and, in rare cases, for contracts.

Part 1 - Researching Investments

Note: Investments are one of several ways that corporations can be connected to your school. Investment tactics are limited in the following ways:

  1. Investments can only be used to affect publicly-traded corporations. Privately held corporations cannot be invested in and you'll have to use other tactics to affect them.
  2. High schools, community colleges and other small schools may not have significant investments, if any. This means that investment campaigns inherently exclude lower-income students and high schoolers.

If you're at a college or university, your school most likely has a heap of money (particularly in things called "endowments") that it invests in the stock market to make money for the school. This money sometimes grows on trees (if they invest in logging and paper corporations) and it usually grows at the expense of the environment, workers and consumers in general. If you can get a list of your school's investments, you can compare the corporations they invest in to the anti-social and anti-environmental histories of these corporations. You may find that your school holds stock in Shell Oil or Coca-Cola (both of which do business with a military regime in Nigeria that murders environmental activists). Maybe your school is invested in tobacco corporations or military contractors.

Whatever the case may be, your school can pressure these corporations by no longer investing in them or can hold these corporations accountable by using the stock to vote to change the corporation's behavior. If you are really ambitious, you may try to demand that your administration set up a student investment review board that has the power to oversee the school's investments and make sure that they use their stocks to encourage corporations to be less destructive than they'd normally be.

How to find out?

To find out what your school is invested in, you'll need to figure out who to ask. A good place to start is in your school's administration building. If it's not obvious, start by looking at a campus map or by just asking around until someone points you in the right direction. The administration building is usually where your college president's office is. Once you're in the administration building, look to see if there is a financial office other than the type of office that would deal with student stuff (i.e. not your student loan office and not where you pay tuition).

If you can't figure it out easily, stop in any office and do this:

  1. Be confident, calm and very polite. Dress a little nicer than usual.
  2. Tell the person you see that you're trying to find the office that deals with the university's investments.
  3. After one or two references, you should be in the right place.

You'll probably need to ask a secretary your question first. Ask if this is the office that has a list of university investments, and who is the right person to ask for a copy of it. Generally, someone will appear from an office tucked away behind the secretary and will grant you a few minutes of their precious time. Sometimes, you'll be told that the person you need to speak to is out of town, in a meeting or otherwise unavailable. If so, find out exactly when would be a good time for you to come back and find this person. You may be given a chance to set up a meeting with this person. If so, take it.

If you get to speak to someone who knows about investments, you'll have to explain what you're looking for. Here's what you want to say:

"Hi. We're interested in getting a copy of the school's investments."

"Could you please explain which of the university's funds (like endowments and such) are invested in stocks, bonds or mutual funds?"

Note: This is an okay time to act a bit ignorant. If you're too confident here, they'll be even more suspicious. Also, you want to give them a chance to feel the need to teach you how things work. You'll want to have them teach you as much as they can, so you can learn the system. Take notes and ask as many questions as you feel comfortable asking.

What NOT to do: Don't confuse the school investing in things like corporations and World Bank bonds and such with "investing in the school." Nearly all schools are non-profit and it's not possible to "invest in the school." If you act as though you're asking how to invest in the school, they'll think you're crazy.

Expect to be interrogated a bit and handle this as best you can. You may want to use this opportunity to ask whether the school has any sort of investment policies (some have policies from the anti-Apartheid movement against the South African government in the 1980s). Some schools have committees which deal with investment decisions. If so, find out who is on the committee, how they get there, when/where their meetings are and how to get something on their agenda.

Look not only for a list of the corporations, bonds and mutual funds, but HOW MUCH is invested in each one. And if they have a money manager like a bank investing on their behalf, or are invested in a mutual fund, you also want to know what they are investing in. The school may claim that they don't know what they're invested in, because it's always changing, but they can find out if they wanted to and they can provide a "snapshot." More on this below.

Many public universities have private non-profit foundations, like "Foundation for Blah University" or "Blah University Foundation," which are separate entities from the school itself and handle some or all of the school's investments. This means that, even though it might be for a public school, the information is private and you have no right to know.

If you're at a public school, it's possible that it has both private and public investment funds. Ex: Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania has a private non-profit housed on campus, which controls some of its own investment funds, but the school itself also has its own (much larger) investments.

If all else fails: Start a "what are they hiding?" campaign. Get letters to the editor into the campus AND community newspapers, raise as much of a fuss as you can about why they're hiding. Get the Student Government and Faculty Senate to pass resolutions in favor of an investment disclosure policy. Garner as much support as you can.

What to do once you have the information: Once you get a list of your school's investments, you need to decide what you want to do with the information.


A divestment campaign involves convincing your university to sell their stock in a certain corporation in order to pressure that corporation to change a certain behavior. The threat to the company is that if enough people and organizations sell that company's stock, its value goes down. They have an interest in making sure that campaign doesn't become popular.

In the 1980's, the famous (and successful) divestment campaign was Anti-Apartheid, the targets were all corporations doing business in South Africa or with the South African government, and the behavior to be changed was supporting a racist government (either directly or with tax dollars).

In the 1990's (and ongoing) a divestment effort against the military regime in Burma involved campaigns against PepsiCo (which left Burma after a high profile campus-based campaign), Texaco (which left after the University of Wisconsin at Madison sold over $230,000 worth of stock), Unocal (that campaign is ongoing), and many others.


"If government was run like a business..." Heard that one before? Well, let's think about it. If government was run like a business, then when you walk into a voting booth, you'd see a sign from the party in power telling you how to vote. All of the people who didn't even bother to vote would be counted as voting that way. Corporations count non-votes as votes for whatever the board of directors recommends to its shareholders. Originally, the rule for corporate voting in America was "one person, one vote." Now it's one piece of stock, one vote.

Some schools have a policy of investing based only on fiduciary concerns (a.k.a. only money matters). In the 1980s, during the anti-Apartheid campaign, some schools adopted social criteria for investing their funds. You ought to check to see what investment reforms may have been put in place by your school at that time.

Rather than have someone at your school doing the daily stock trading, most schools hire private money managers to do this for them. Often these money managers are big banks. When you ask your administrators for a list of your school's investments, you may be told that they don't know, since the investments are constantly changing. Your school has the power to ask their money manager for a list of what the investments currently are. While investments might change over time, they probably aren't changing very much. Penn State University, after pressure from students, agreed this past year to start releasing a "snapshot" of their investments each summer. You can ask for something similar.

Another catch is that your school may have its money invested in mutual funds. Mutual funds are funds run by private companies who invest in a variety of corporate stocks, ensuring more stability than investment in a single stock. If your school has investments in mutual funds, you'll need to get them to do the same as with their money managers - get them to release a snapshot of what they're investing in.

There's a special category of mutual funds known as Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) funds. These funds are run by outfits which try to use their collective stocks to vote in a "socially responsible" way when they have the chance. These SRI funds will also introduce shareholder resolutions or "proxies" which stockholders can vote on. You can find information on SRI campaigns at the website of the Sustainable Endowments Institute


If you succeed in getting a list of your school's investments, please send a copy to SEAC by email or at SEAC, PO Box 31909, Philadelphia, PA 19104-0609. SEAC can help you figure out what campaigns you may want to engage in depending on your school's investments. SEAC can also help you figure out what certain corporations are doing which you may want to try to change.

The author can be reached at 215-743-4884 or by email.

Later parts of this article will eventually appear in upcoming issues of Threshold. Future articles will cover:

  • Procurements (stuff that your school buys)
  • Waste Contracts
  • Research
  • Students as Products
  • Campus Democracy

    Addendum to Part 1 - Weaknesses of SRI

    It assumes that there are "good" corporations and that investment in corporations is compatible with social progress.

    Corporations are designed in a way that is incompatible with social responsibility. The whole idea of a corporation needing to make more and more profit over time in order to pay people who do NOTHING to earn that profit is flawed. It encourages the corporate behaviors that we generally oppose (abuse of labor, consumers and the environment). Money doesn't grow on trees. Money IS trees. Money is the blood of workers. Money that is "made" through investments is made by hurting things we hold dear. "Socially responsible" corporations only make things look less damaging. Sometimes they are less damaging. That doesn't change the fact that their activities are still damaging. Truly socially responsible corporations would not make any profits. Their profits would go back to their workers.

    It doesn't require people to challenge capitalism/corporatism.

    The notion that it's acceptable to make money by doing nothing other than having money is unethical and should not be encouraged.

    It helps greenwash the corporations that look socially conscious, which encourages other corporations to make themselves look socially conscious, when in reality, most of these "good" corporations aren't very good.

    Sun Oil has signed the toothless "CERES" Principles. This act has allowed them to be considered socially responsible by SRI firms. A real look at this oil corporation's behavior does not justify them being considered responsible at all (no oil company deserves such a title). SRI firms help encourage corporations to pretend that they're "green" or otherwise socially responsible, even when they're not. A good hard look at Ben & Jerrys, Body Shop, Green Mountain Energy or most other "good" companies shows that they aren't much different in their behavior from other companies that fight unions, sell unhealthy products, and lie to consumers about the eco-friendliness of their product (yes, these are real examples from these companies and are only the beginning). For info, visit the pages on these companies in the Corporate Dirt Archives at www.corporations.org

    Shifting investments from one set of "bad" corporations to "good" or "better" corporations doesn't pressure any specific corporations to make specific changes. Only focused campaigns on certain corporations over certain issues can create the sort of pressure that is needed to get corporations to change specific behaviors.

    If a school stops investing in a set of 100 companies and shifts those investments to something else, the specific corporations in those 100 aren't going to think that they need to react to specific campaigns against them. Unocal isn't going to all of a sudden pull out of Burma, Afghanistan or Canada or reduce their pollution in California. It takes specific, targeted campaigns to get corporations to change their behavior over a stock action.

    SRI Mutual Funds can be useful if they do lots of proxy actions, but without that proxy work, their investment shifting makes no positive social difference.

    It doesn't help democratize a school's investment decisions to transfer investment decisions from the school to an outside investment firm. All it can do is help ensure that stock will be voted on responsibly at schools where students are incapable of getting democratically elected investment boards set up to make those decisions themselves.

    Divestment is a powerful tool as well and should not be discarded with the assumption that "engagement" is more productive.

    Divestment can be as powerful or more powerful than staying invested in order to vote on proxies.