Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

University to divest holdings in companies tied to Sudan

In response to a student-led initiative, on April 14 the University of Denver Board of Trustees approved a plan to divest its financial interests in foreign companies doing business with the government of Sudan.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Sudan Divestment Task Force (a project of the Genocide Intervention Network), Sudanese troops and government-sponsored militias since 2003 have perpetrated an ongoing genocide against the black African population in Sudan’s Darfur region.

“I think it’s a good step for DU to put themselves in one of the first 40 or 50 universities to divest,” says John McMahon, a junior international studies and Russian major who was involved in the effort at DU.

Making the case for divestment

McMahon and Hannah Long, a graduate student in social work, began the initiative last fall when Long asked friend Scott Wisor, the task force’s local national field organizer, how DU students could help.

More than 500 students signed a petition supporting divestment. The Graduate Student Association Council (GSAC) and Student Bar Association offered their support, and the All Undergraduate Student Association Senate passed a resolution urging divestment.

McMahon says they worked to get a diverse range of support on campus.

“The students clearly knew their stuff. They were passionate, knew what they wanted and demonstrated the leadership to effect change,” says Craig Woody, vice chancellor for business and financial affairs.

Woody reviewed not only the DU students’ research, but also the work of the task force, which he says made a compelling case. As of January 2007, the task force reported, more than 400,000 people had been slaughtered and 2.5 million more driven from their homes. Meanwhile, bolstered by foreign investments, the Sudanese economy blossomed.

But rather than divest entirely from Sudan, which could have unintended consequences on the country’s most vulnerable populations, the task force calls for divestment from targeted companies — those deemed the most egregious offenders.

DU’s investment portfolio

It was Woody’s task to determine if DU’s investment portfolio included any of those offending companies. Although an executive order signed by former President Bill Clinton banned American companies from doing business with Sudan since 1997, foreign-based companies continue to conduct business there. 

Woody found that DU held 17,300 shares of directly-held stock — just over $1 million in value — in a French oil field services company ranked No. 5 on the Sudan Divestment Task Force’s Feb. 12, 2007, list of highest offending companies. 

A letter to that company dated May 1, 2007, advised that the “University will divest all of its holdings” within 60 days if the company “does not improve its business dealings in Sudan relative to the criteria established by the Sudan Divestment Task Force.”

Although the company didn’t respond directly to Woody, it moved from the “highest offender” category to the “ongoing engagement” category in the task force’s latest report released on May 31. The move illustrates the company’s commitment to implementing “substantial action” as defined by the task force divestment model. 

Additionally, the University will ask investment managers of comingled funds to evaluate their portfolios and consider divesting from companies identified as offenders. DU’s investments total about $250 million, Woody says. 

“It’s not the only place in the world where bad things are going on, but the Sudan task force has demonstrated an effective case for divestment,” Woody says. “World pressure may cause the Sudanese government to address the genocide.”

Becoming part of a movement

DU joins dozens of colleges and universities as well as states and municipalities that have divested from Sudan. The University will continue to monitor task force reports to ensure its compliance with the policy adopted by the Board of Trustees. 

The student activists plan to continue their efforts, too, by monitoring the administration’s compliance and urging students to support federal divestment legislation.

Although they might not have realized their impact at the time, Long, McMahon and the other students involved had garnered respect from the University’s highest echelon.

In a letter to GSAC, Chancellor Robert Coombe wrote, “I am very proud of you and the many other DU students who pushed the divestment initiative forward.”

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