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March 1, 2011

Inspired by Brown, activists push for HEI non-investment

Student activists are pressuring the University to pull all its investments from HEI Hotels & Resorts, encouraged by the success of activists at Brown University to convince the school to divest from the company because of its anti-union practices.

The U of C’s assets include a $50 million investment in HEI, which accounts for 10 percent of the most recent acquisition fund. Students at the U of C first began campaigning against the company in 2008, when Students Organized and United with Labor (SOUL) wrote a letter to President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum encouraging them to reconsider the University’s investments.

Complaints against HEI include a drastic staff reduction and threatening termination to employees who intend to unionize. As one of the largest hotel management companies in the nation, HEI is known for managing hotel chains like Marriott, Westin, Embassy Suites, and Hilton.

But unlike Brown, which has an Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policy, the Kalven Report dictates that the U of C remain neutral on social and political issues, which extends to University investments.

“Where Brown has a responsible investment committee, we have Zimmer’s insistence that a lack of one promotes open debate,” said fourth-year Ashley Lane, an active member of a group on campus working towards stopping University’s reinvestment in HEI.

A five-student delegation, which included Lane, had an advisory meeting with Kim Goeff-Crews on February 17 to look into the development of last year’s efforts by campus groups such as Students for a Democratic Society RSO (SDS) and SOUL to end investment to HEI.

Some students believe that in spite of the Kalven Report, the University should divest because of the possibility to spark real change. A blog post on the SDS website writes, “What separates this case from Apartheid and Darfur, however, is that the University has a major investment in HEI and actually has the ability to force a change in policy.”

Lane, along with several other students, first met HEI workers in the fall during a University of Chicago Coalition for Immigration Reform (UCCIR) event and was moved by workers “whose stories were incredibly powerful,” she said.

Lane said the University gave them a host of reasons why pulling investments is not an option. “We’ve also been told that the University outsources its investing to private firms, which adds an extra level of complication in trying to get the University to commit to non-reinvestment because they claim it’s out of their hands.”

Other investors in HEI include Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame, and students at these Universities are sending similar messages to administrators.

At Harvard, the Harvard Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) plans to meet with the administration later this semester and hopes to gain a victory similar to the one at Brown.

“In general, there’s a lot of pushback by the [Harvard] Administration in making a socially beneficial decision against economic benefits,” said SLAM member Sandra Korn. But unlike the U of C, Harvard has a history of divesting in socially irresponsible companies.

The activists plan to meet with Chief Investment Officer Mark Schmid early next quarter to discuss the possibility of noninvestment in HEI. The students must convince him why the University should stop investment even though University funds are invested in what Lane said administrators describe as “non-controversial parts” of HEI.

Should the administration refuse to pull all investments, Lane plans to call for the University’s divestment, which would mean the reduction of the current investments in HEI instead of the more total noninvolvement. “It would not be the end of the momentum either way,” she said.

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