University Council majority votes to support tobacco divestment

Fifty-one members of the Council voted in favor of the proposal while six voted no

· February 19, 2014, 7:30 pm   ·  Updated February 20, 2014, 1:09 am

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Members of the University Council voted in support of a proposal that Penn divest from tobacco companies on Wednesday night.

Fifty-one members of the Council, which focuses on educational objectives and matters that affect the university community, voted yes for divesting. Six, including the Provost Vincent Price , Vice President for the Department of Public Safety Maureen Rush  and several Undergraduate Assembly  members, voted no.

Council members, which include faculty, staff and students leaders, based their votes on a consensus from their respective constituencies. Two members, including President Amy Gutmann, who voiced her doubts about the proposal at last month’s Council meeting, chose to abstain.

Gutmann will advise the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees on results of the vote. Trustees will then deliberate on how to proceed.

The vote followed January's Council meeting, where a group of faculty presented an argument for Penn’s moral obligation to the divestment from tobacco companies. The Faculty Senate Executive Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday in support of the proposal. At their meeting on Sunday, the Undergraduate Assembly also debated whether Penn should divest from its investments in tobacco companies.

Faculty members in favor of divestment have argued that tobacco  companies’ marketing and business strategies are a moral evil.

While the prevalence of smoking has decreased in the United States, there is an increase in targeted marketing towards the developing world, philosophy  professor Michael Weisberg  argued in January’s meeting. " Tobacco companies] are attacking the politicians from these nations ... who  pass laws prohibiting advertising against smoking,” Charles O’Brien , a professor of psychiatry   at the Perelman School of Medicine, said at Wednesday’s University Council meeting.

Wednesday’s open forum council meeting further emphasized the complexity of the divestiture issue . Susan Sorenson , a professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice,  brought last month’s broader argument for divestment home to Philadelphia.

Of the 10 largest cities in the United States, Philadelphia reports the lowest decrease in the smoking rate, Sorenson said . She suggested that the poverty levels and high percentage of blacks in the city were attractive factors to tobacco companies.

Sorenson reiterated the call for the University to reconsider its relationship with the tobacco industry. “We have a vested interest in Philadelphia and a public stated commitment to improve conditions in Philadelphia,” she said. “Our vested interests should include divestment.”

Others cautioned about the actual costs of constraining the University investment portfolio. The issue lies between the fiduciary responsibility of the Trustees to its donors in maximizing long-term returns and upholding Penn’s moral and social obligations as a global citizen. “People who have given to the University have done it on the understanding that our investment will not be used to dissociate the University from all those companies that we rightly think are doing good or bad,"  Gutmann said at January’s University Council meeting.

UA speaker and College junior Joshua Chilcote voted against the proposal because he thought it could harm the University’s investment portfolio.

“One of the concerns that they never answered was the idea that once you start divesting and critiquing the portfolio it becomes harder to hire the best people to run the portfolio,” he said. “We have bigger priorities such as expanding financial aid, hiring faculty and expanding courses.”

Some also argued in January that divestment from the tobacco industry might not have the same meaningful effect as Harvard and Stanford Universities’ divestment in the 1990s.

SP2 professor Toorjo Ghose  suggested that Penn look to make its mark in an international movement against tobacco companies. “This is the moment when we can really take a leadership position in the second round of social movement around this,” Ghose said.

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