The Georgetown University board of directors consists of extraordinarily influential and accomplished figures in various fields and accords. This 38-person group has the final say on any significant decision made for the Georgetown University community — from tuition, to the campus plan, to whether our endowment should be divested from coal. The board of directors takes its jobs seriously and works hard to make the most suitable and impactful decisions for the Georgetown community. However, the board of directors is a nebulous concept to most students on campus.
The issue of divesting Georgetown’s endowment from fossil fuels is one that has been examined by the board of directors over the past years. Discussions between GU Fossil Free and the board culminated last June with the university’s announcement that Georgetown “will not make or continue any direct investments of endowment funds in companies whose principal business is mining coal for use in energy production.” Taking the issue a step further, the university promised to create a special “committee [to] explore the question of socially responsible investment,” which led to the formation of the committee on socially responsible investment.
Yet, since its creation in June of 2015, the SRI committee has held no meetings until this past Friday. GUFF, the organization on campus pushing for the divestment agenda, feels that the committee’s relaxed attitude highlights the deeper flaws that exist in the board of directors’ engagement and communication methodologies. While the lack of meetings of the SRI committee may not be genuinely reflective of the board’s attitude toward divestment, the promise to explore the issue of responsible investment as a whole needs to be kept.
Since the creation of our movement on campus, GUFF has had to bridge the chasm between the board and the student body, often using informal communication channels to get word to and from the board. This problem is not unique to GUFF; many student leaders across campus see communication between the board and students as lacking.
There are very few avenues for engagement with the board available to the community at large. The main channel of communication to students consists of two student appointees who work through GUSA to interact with the board of directors on a formal basis. However, the relegation of these student representatives to the Student Life Working Group subcommittee of the Main Campus Affairs Committee of the board of directors in January of last year only exacerbated the problem. It is troubling to witness the level of disconnection that the Board has from the student body, which is heavily affected by its decisions.
Consequently, the very community that is the raison d’etre of the board, the student body, knows neither the agenda nor the outcomes of the meetings they hold. This kind of opacity is surprising in an institution that prides itself on the facilitation of dialogue and engagement, and may hamper the board’s own success in the long run.
This stands in stark contrast to approaches by peer institutions like American University. AU’s president and board chair hold open forums every semester, and the board schedule is clearly laid out online. Indeed, our own website states that “Georgetown’s Jesuit tradition … promotes the University’s commitment to spiritual inquiry, civic engagement, and religious and cultural pluralism.” Is it not fitting then to expect, as a requisite minimum, that the results of Board discussions are made available to the very parties they affect? The board of directors truly does operate with the best interests of Georgetown in mind. Nevertheless, this work to improve our campus community should be communicated in a clear fashion to all members of the Hilltop.
In order to address these issues of transparency, GU Fossil Free calls on the Office of Strategic Engagement to create an online, centralized location for public information concerning the proceedings and decisions of the board. In addition, GU Fossil Free calls for the SRI committee to consider what socially responsible investment means at Georgetown University in earnest, and to invite all members of the community to contribute in some meaningful fashion to that dialogue. Georgetown prides itself on engagement with tough issues. Let us not now shy away from these challenges; instead, let us embrace them as a community of critical thinkers with a strong foundation in Catholic social thought.
Theo Montgomery is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.
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