by Ken Brown
The campaign for applying social justice criteria to educational and medical faculty retirement funds resembles a David vs. Goliath story: definite progress but no knockout intended.
TIAA-CREF (T-C) definitely qualifies as giant: a Fortune 100 company with 5,500 employees servicing 3.2 million participants from 15,000 institutions. T-C was founded by Carnegie in 1918 as a life insurance company for school teachers, who are often underpaid. The company began offering stock investment options for retirement funds in 1952. Instituted as a service-oriented program, ethical principles had been slow to influence bottom-line mandates of their investment policies.
Enter Neil Wollman as David. Since 1984, Dr. Wollman has undertaken the long struggle for moral criteria to be applied to investment policies. As one of three projects sponsored by Manchester’s Peace Studies Institute undertaken by Neil, the T-C campaign has confronted the greatest obstacles but has reaped significant success. Millions of dollars are now being invested in socially responsible corporations, an achievement Neil has accomplished at his own expense, and in addition to his other projects, the Graduation Pledge campaign and the National Index of Violence and Harm. His office is a loosely-partitioned section of a 3rd floor administration building maintenance room. His hours are often “nightly” – all night. Such commitment made success inevitable.
Wollman’s first effort, in the 1980s, was for T-C to establish a “social responsibility” fund that would preclude military, tobacco, alcohol, and other questionable investments as an alternative to indiscriminate market holdings judged only by potential earnings. In 1990, Carnegie’s progeny agreed to establish a “Social Choice” option with negative screening to preclude undesirable investments. Many participants were grateful for the choice. Today, this fund contains almost nine billion dollars…a good return for five years of all-nighters!
Once the Social Choice fund was established, Dr. Wollman began to build a coalition to press T-C for adding positive screens to the fund and promote shareholder participation and advocacy as well. Given its control of billions in the investment market, T-C wields huge potential influence as shareholder advocates in almost every sector of the economy. T-C has responded by adding a significant community investment to their non-screened Traditional Annuity Account, established a new Division and Director of Social and Community Investing, and has voluntarily added significant micro-finance investment to the Traditional Annuity Account.
Congratulations are due to Neil Wollman for his good-natured persistence in urging a major financial institution to apply moral considerations in a financial world that often ignores them. Billions of dollars have been redirected! As even Bill Gates or Warren Buffett would say, that’s real money. It’s a real achievement for justice as well, thanks to Neil.
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Ken Brown is a professor emeritus of philosophy and peace studies at Manchester University. He taught philosophy and religion at Manchester from 1961 to 2006 and served as director of the Peace Studies Institute from 1980 to 2005.