In a move unprecedented by any U.S. college or university, the Occidental board of trustees will refrain from investing Occidental’s endowment in companies that manufacture military-style assault rifles. Implemented last January, the decision came as a response to a faculty resolution urging the school to address the string of mass shootings at schools across the country
Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy Peter Dreier and professor of Religious Studies Dale Wright led faculty efforts toward this change, drafting the resolution last year in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn. The shooting was one in a series of gun-related mass homicides that prompted Dreier and Wright to take action.
“National outrage about gun violence has been building over the last five or six years and began with massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado years ago, and Aurora and lots of other places, and with Sandy Hook killings in Newtown, Conn. it really reached a crescendo,” Dreier said.
The faculty resolution calls for the board to divest all stock holdings in companies that produce “military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines for the purpose of sale and distribution to private citizens.” According to the resolution, continuing to invest in such companies would make the school complicit in the “violence and fear” that the guns cause.
This resolution against assault weapons echoes a letter signed by President Jonathan Veitch in Dec. 2012, calling for a ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons. Dreier believes divesting from companies that produce such weapons will ensure that the school upholds values exhibited in the letter, namely the belief that easy access to guns undermines the classroom experience by creating a potentially unsafe environment for students. Other faculty members agreed, with the resolution passing with 85 percent approval last February.
The faculty then presented its resolution to the board last spring, where an investment committee reviewed it. According to Board of Trustees Chair Christopher Calkins ‘67, the committee worked with faculty and the college’s investment advisers to address the issue. In crafting a response, the committee had to consider the board’s fiduciary responsibility to the school and its financial resources.
When the committee presented its final plan to the board, there was unanimous support. In a response to the faculty, Calkins noted that the college does not currently have any investments in assault weapon manufacturing companies and will continue this trend in the future.
According to Dreier, Occidental College is attracting praise as the first school in the country to ban investment in gun manufacturers. Drier noted that he has received commendations from other schools and national organizations pushing for stricter gun laws. Although the school’s endowment is small, Dreier believes the action will spur greater action on the issue of gun violence, which Dreier says is necessary for legislative changes.
“Public opinion alone doesn’t change laws, so taking an action like this is a way to start building a movement and translate public opinion into action” Dreier said.
Dreier is also confident that this action will catalyze a movement among colleges and universities across the country. He likens it to the efforts of academic institutions in the ’80s to divest from companies in South Africa during Apartheid.
“In some ways it’s modeled on the divestment movement of the 1980s when college students and faculty demanded colleges to divest from companies in South Africa. Eventually it gained a lot of momentum and grew and played a huge role in dismantling Apartheid, “ Dreier said.
But according to Calkins, while the board is happy to be able to do something in response to the issue of gun violence, the potential for future divestment is limited.
“There’s an unlimited number of causes, issues, concerns that could be raised, and should be raised, but whether they should be addressed in investment policy is a different question,” Calkins said.