Potential referendum urges USF Foundation to divest

VIA The Oracle | By Miki Shine

A controversial petition that urges the USF Foundation to divest from “companies complicit in human rights violations,” among other issues, is being pushed for placement as a referendum on the Student Government (SG) election ballot next month.

The petition, titled “USF Divest From Fossil Fuels, Private Prison and Companies Complicit in Human Rights Violations,” also calls for the Foundation to divest from companies that have a direct connection with contributing to the use of fossil fuels, funding private prisons and investing “in human rights violations in Palestine and Yemen.”

This is not the first time the concept of divestment for the USF Foundation has come up over the past few years. Last spring, the SG Supreme Court ruled that an SG Senate resolution written by then-Senator Muhammad Imam specifically discussing divestment from companies investing in Israel was unconstitutional and not within the Senate’s jurisdiction.

A similar referendum made it to the ballot in 2013, which led to then-Student Body President Brian Goff issuing an apology to the student body. The referendum only discussed divestment from companies purportedly complicit in human rights violations. Legal counsel advised that the referendum was inconsistent with Florida Statutes and USF policies.

Even if the potential referendum reaches the ballot, it is non-binding and doesn’t obligate the university to take any such actions.

“The issue of divestment has been proposed numerous times since 2013, either through student elections, student petitions or Student Government, often led by the same student organization or group of students,”  Adam Freeman, university spokesman, said. “Since the issue was already considered by the USF Foundation, it will not be taken up again or voted on at future meetings.”

An email from Sen. Nick Stevens to The Oracle said the petition gathered 3,465 signatures. Student Government Advising, Training and Operations (SGATO) team could not confirm how many signatures were submitted and members of SGATO were in the process of verifying signatures, which is expected to “take a while,” according to SGATO Director Gary Manka.

The petition stated that the university invests over $400 million with the profits coming back to USF. According to the 2015-16 Foundation Performance Report, total commitments for the year totaled $71,485,601.

The portion of the petition discussing private prisons is mainly focused on one corporation, which it claims receives funds from the Foundation.

“The problem is we are investing in unethical companies such as Corrections Corporations of America (CCA),” the petition said. “CCA makes for-profit prisons. CCA has a financial incentive to put people in jail. CCA manipulates laws to increase incarceration rates and deportations. This greatly affects communities of color as it paves the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The second portion of the petition discusses climate change and effects to the environment. It calls out specific organizations that it claims receive funds from the USF Foundation.

“Coal plants cause asthma and dump mercury into the air and water; fracking fluid can leak into groundwater and make people sick; pipelines can leak, and so on,” it said. “USF invests in companies like Duke Energy and BP. BP’s oil spill destroyed our Florida’s Gulf coastline. We need to make it clear that if it’s wrong to wreck the planet, then it’s also wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

When it turns to the matter of human rights violations, the petition specifically refers to Palestine and Yemen, but does not mention any specific corporations.

“We are investing in weapons manufacturers that are war profiteering,” it said. “Companies that make bombs have a financial incentive to lobby congressmen to push our nation to war. Weapons are sold to corrupt regimes that ruthlessly drop Tomahawk and white phosphorus missiles on civilian populations.”

In order for the petition to officially get on the ballot, SGATO has to verify the signatures of current students and the petition would then need to be deemed constitutional by the SG Supreme Court.

The petition claims that the USF Foundation releases an annual report that provides information about where investments go. The Foundation does release a yearly Performance Report, but information about where funds are invested is not made public.

Portions of the petition are similar to a resolution presented to the SG Senate last spring titled “In Support of Student Voices.” The resolution focused on the human rights aspect, specifically against the Palestinian people.

It wanted to create a committee consisting of student, staff and faculty to “publish quarterly reports of its investments and investment policy to create transparency” and “to create a policy that ensures our endowment is invested in a socially just manner with regard to human rights and environmental welfare.”

The resolution was ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the SG Supreme Court for being outside of the Senate’s jurisdiction as it was not related to student expenses, for targeting a specific group or people since it specifically focusing on companies that have business in Israel and for violating Senate statutes by calling for a committee of students, staff and faculty.

Members of the USF Foundation reviewed the concept of divestment in 2014 after a petition organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine gathered over 10,000 signatures. It resulted in a decision to not divest and maintain the current investment policies, according to Freeman.

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