In the face of student protests, Penn has decided to renew its contract with PNC Bank.
The University announced Tuesday that it will be continuing its long-standing relationship with PNC, after having considered alternatives in the banking industry for the past several months.
The decision effectively marks the end of a campaign by the Penn Community Against Mountaintop Removal — a student group that spent much of the 2011-12 school year calling on Penn to re-evaluate its ties to PNC.
Student members of PCAMTR had cited environmental concerns in their movement, arguing that Penn was indirectly supporting mountaintop removal by working with PNC.
Mountaintop removal is a process that involves removing the tops of mountains in order to reach coal seams that lie underneath. PNC has financed the practice through a number of its investments.
Although Penn has renewed its contract with PNC, University officials said that environmental factors played more of a role than ever before in their decision to continue a relationship with a vendor.
“What was different this time was that, because of the mountaintop removal issue, we had a heightened sensitivity to all of the possible touchpoints we should consider in choosing a provider,” Associate Vice President for Business Services Christopher Bradie said.
After starting with a large pool of potential vendors, Bradie said that the University narrowed down the list of banks it was considering to three. Other than PNC, he declined to provide the names of the banks.
Unlike the University’s prior agreement with PNC, which ran from 2005 to 2012, the current contract lasts for just two years. Vice President for Business Services Marie Witt acknowledged that this is part of a trend in which the University is increasingly moving away from longer-term commitments with companies like PNC, given that the market is changing rapidly.
However, some PCAMTR members expressed concern that the University’s hands may now largely be tied, since it has already signed off on the PNC contract.
“I’m personally worried that Penn lost a lot of its leverage power by renewing the deal,” said College senior and PCAMTR member Andrew Ciampa, who questioned whether the University will be in a position to influence PNC’s environmental practices during the two-year contract period. “I think they’ve clearly done a lot of research on the matter, which I appreciate, but I’m not sure if I agree with their conclusion.”
Like in the past, students who choose to take advantage of Penn’s relationship with PNC will still be able to link their PennCards with their bank accounts. Under the banking agreement, there are also 15 ATMs around campus that students have access to, according to Business Services spokesperson Barbara Lea-Kruger.
During the contract review process — formally called a “request for proposal” — the University asked banks a series of new questions that it does not typically include in an RFP. Among these questions, Penn asked each bank to discuss issues related to their sustainability practices and environmental impact.
“This is probably where the students had the biggest impact,” said Bradie, explaining that the new questions on the RFP will likely serve as a model for future contract negotiations at Penn. “I think the issue of mountaintop removal allowed us to look under the hood in terms of what we should be thinking about when it comes to our social consciousness as an institution.”
Although students in PCAMTR were ultimately disappointed that Penn decided to continue working with PNC, members said they were satisfied with the University’s outreach efforts throughout the group’s campaign.
Conversations with the administration about mountaintop removal went “better than expected” over the past year, said 2012 Wharton graduate Russell Trimmer, who was involved with PCAMTR.
PCAMTR members also hope the University will do more to market the Student Federal Credit Union — an alternative on-campus banking option — to undergraduates.
The bulk of PCAMTR’s activism took place last spring semester. On Jan. 23, 2012, PCAMTR members held a private meeting with PNC executives. During the meeting, students had the opportunity to voice some of their concerns.
The group also staged a demonstration in February 2012 in front of the PNC branch near 40th and Walnut streets, calling on students to withdraw their accounts from the bank.
After PCAMTR was recently made aware of the contract renewal, student members decided to merge the organization with a new environmental activism group called Divestment at Penn. Founded earlier this semester, DAP is calling upon the University to divest any financial holdings it has in fossil fuel companies.
“I think that this campaign is not over, but it’s re-forming itself to have a larger goal of fossil fuel divestment,” said College junior Penny Jennewein, who was active with PCAMTR and is now getting involved with DAP. “I’d say that fossil fuel divestment is getting a lot of energy and press, and students on campus are now going for the bigger picture. I think we can expect to see a lot of movement there quickly.”
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