Letter to the Editor: Disclose and divest NU’s firearms funding

Three student movements have focused on Northwestern’s endowment investments: Fossil Free NU, Unshackle NU and NU Divest. It’s time to add a fourth: Divest Firearms Funding.

Gun makers fuel the National Rifle Association’s political clout, enabling it to spend over $3 million on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) re-election and $30 million on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. It’s clearly received favorable treatment in return. Now, GOP essentially stands for “Guns Over People.” The NRA has our president and Congress in its holster.

That abuse of power triggered tragic consequences at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It’s no coincidence that the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook occurred in Florida, a largely firearms-friendly NRA fiefdom sometimes called “The Gunshine State.” Where else could a troubled, gun-obsessed 19-year-old, expelled from school for disciplinary concerns, legally buy an AR-15 assault rifle — essentially a civilian version of the military’s M-16 rifle that I once fired while serving in the Air Force from ’64 to ’68. No civilian should own this type of weapon, but thanks to the NRA, too many do.

After the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012, I looked into whether NU’s endowment held stock in firearms manufacturers. After learning that NU doesn’t buy shares in individual companies, but rather in funds that pool investments based on stock market performance, I still wanted to know, “What funds?” As I soon realized, however, that information isn’t publicly disclosed.

That still holds true, but two developments have occured since then which could change the situation. In 2015, NU agreed to sign the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investing — aimed at working toward greater investment transparency — along with Harvard University and University of California, Berkeley. Around eighteen months later, NU’s Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility — comprised of students, staff, faculty and alumni — had its first meeting. Its goal is to gain and take into account community input on investment decisions, an effort led by University President Morton Schapiro and chief investment officer Will McLean. But how can we work toward full transparency and community understanding without revealing specific investments? That’s like posting the Fortune 500 list, but refraining from naming any companies on it. How can the Advisory Committee effectively do its job if the greater NU community doesn’t know where endowment funds are targeted?

The Board of Trustees’ silence is deafening. But perhaps a confirm or deny approach might work regarding firearms’ stocks. Let’s start with the usual suspects: Vanguard, Fidelity Investments, Goldman Sachs and BlackRock. These firms are some of the largest shareholders of Smith & Wesson, Ruger and Vista Outdoor, noted in a 2016 Mother Jones article. At the time, Vanguard also owned 14 percent of the shares in CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, a company that owns and manages private prisons, which could interest Unshackle NU if the University does in fact hold shares. Cerberus Capital Management owns the Remington Outdoor Company, formerly known as the Freedom Group, maker of the Bushmaster AR-15  used by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook.

Can the Board of Trustees tell us if NU invests in any or all of these funds? Just a simple yes or no answer would be a start. Trustees are obligated to get a high return on investment. But in today’s heated campus climate, they also should be obligated to reveal how they do it. Confidentiality is a cop-out that can’t work anymore. Students, staff, faculty and alumni deserve to know all the facts about NU’s endowment investments. If trustees remain silent, they may be financially responsible, but are morally bankrupt.

Dick Reif, Medill ’64