By Aimee Miles
Stanford’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility & Licensing (APIR-L) has approved a proposal by Stanford’s Student Anti-Genocide Coalition (STAND) that, if supported by the board of trustees, would lead the University to acknowledge the potential impact of its investments on the current crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On April 23, the APIR-L voted unanimously in favor of recommending a proxy voting guideline that would compel Stanford to support shareholder resolutions encouraging greater transparency and more careful accounting from electronics companies in tracing the supply lines of minerals used in their products, according to Mark Landesmann, who serves on the APIR-L’s human rights sub-committee.
“We recommend that the University vote in favor of well-written and reasonable shareholder resolutions that ask companies for reports on their policies and efforts regarding their avoidance of conflict minerals and conflict mineral derivatives,” APIR-L’s statement read.
“Basically, it’s a very mainstream issue and concern, and there’s broad consensus that there’s a big problem here that institutional investors such as Stanford need to address and the companies that make products containing conflict minerals need to address,” Landesmann said.
STAND first approached the administration with its “conflict-free” initiative in February. The group expressed its concern over a growing body of evidence showing that consumers and investors indirectly fuel ongoing violence in the Congo by purchasing electronics that are made from minerals sold by armed rebel groups in the country’s lawless eastern region.
Debilitating rape has become commonplace there, and an estimated 5.4 million people have been killed in the past 15 years, according to the Enough Project, an anti-genocide advocacy group.
The Congo’s “conflict minerals,” which include tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, are key ingredients in cell phones, personal computers, portable music players and an array of other appliances. The rebel groups who control their distribution earn an estimated $180 million a year from the mineral trade, the Enough Project has said.
The APIR-L’s final 7-0 vote in favor of STAND’s proposal came despite initial objections from panelists who were wary of demonstrating the University’s partiality to a specific cause and from those who feared a dearth of research on the subject, Landesmann said.
The panel’s support sets a new precedent in institutional recognition of conflict minerals as a viable, pressing issue, said Mia Newman ’12, the advocacy director for STAND.
“This is an opportunity for a university to be at the forefront of this issue,” Newman said.
To his knowledge, Landesmann added, “this is the first time any major university has taken any action about this issue. It’s rare for Stanford to act alone and break the silence.”
But even if the measure is approved by the board of trustees, it would steer several paces clear of demanding an explicit change in practice from firms that Stanford invests in–and, in keeping with University policy, would only require Stanford to support other shareholders’ resolutions regarding conflict-free investments, rather than draft its own, Landesmann explained.
“Stanford has made it clear that it’s not an activist on social issues, other than its primary mission of education and research,” he said. On the other hand, he added, “it has to attend to its own social responsibility as an investor…that’s very loudly heard and deeply felt in Fortune 500 corporate boards.”
Newman said STAND was not asking for Stanford to push for more intensive measures because the infrastructure for tracing mineral supply lines hasn’t been fully developed yet.
“We’re not asking for anything harsher, because there’s not a capability in the industry right now,” she said. “We’re okay with small steps.”
Members of the APIR-L will present the resolution to a subcommittee of the board of trustees at the board’s meeting in June, where the board will decide whether or not to support the measure.