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University Of Auckland Urged To Cut Financial Ties To Companies Trading In Human Suffering

An open letter initiated by a coalition of staff and students at the University of Auckland urges the trustees of the University of Auckland’s endowment to adopt a more socially-responsible investment approach. The letter will shortly be delivered to the general manager of the two foundations involved, Paul Cunningham.

The University of Auckland Foundation and the University of Auckland Medical and Health Foundation act as stewards of the University of Auckland’s nearly $400 million NZD endowment. Trustees of each of the foundations have a mandate to generate profit from the endowment which is then used to support educational activities across the University of Auckland.

To date, the letter has been signed by over 380 professors and other academics, professional staff, notable alumni, and current students at the University of Auckland. It implores the foundations to act with expediency on two matters.

Firstly, it asks that both Foundations immediately divest from companies directly or indirectly involved in gross human rights violations, as well as those producing military weapons or components and services to the defence industry.

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Secondly, it requests the Foundations to endorse the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and to integrate these principles into their policies and strategies. Victoria University of Wellington, as well as several universities in Australia, have already endorsed these principles.

These demands are set against a backdrop where, “in the past year, over 110 million people were forcibly displaced, and where civilian casualties from armed conflict are at levels not seen in over four decades,” according to Dr. Ritesh Shah, an affiliated scholar with the Centre for Asia Pacific Refugee Studies at the University of Auckland and a spokesperson for the group.

According to analysis done by Mindful Money, $2.4 billion NZD of investments in the country are currently funding companies involved in human rights violations, and a further $350 million NZD is invested in companies involved in the manufacture of weapons.

Dr. Shah highlights how “this campaign, takes a much wider remit than other divestment campaigns we are witnessing on university campuses around the world, and is aimed at ensuring that irrespective of where armed conflict is occurring, our institution is not generating income through activities which exacerbate human suffering or undermine human dignity.”

Citing a recent survey undertaken by Mindful Money, the letter asserts that the vast majority of New Zealanders expect investments to be managed in a responsible and ethical way. Research also suggests that universities which adapt a socially responsible approach to their investments can reduce fiduciary risk, improve long-term returns, and enhance their public reputation and future donations. Indeed, Dr. Shah notes that, “adopting the Principles of Responsible Investment is not only good sense, but can in fact improve the University’s bottom line.”

This is not the first time the University of Auckland is being asked to alter its investment approach. In 2019, following a nearly five-year public campaign led by staff and students, it agreed to fully divest from fossil fuel investments. The University of Auckland also has made decisions to avoid investments in companies deriving revenue from illegal or nuclear weapons or the manufacture of tobacco products.

Dr. Shah concludes, “given the precedents already in place, we hope the trustees will engage proactively and constructively with what we are asking in the letter, to ensure that together we are leaving future members of our institution with a safer, more prosperous and harmonious world.”

Members of the University of Auckland community (staff, students, alumni) can sign the letter if they so choose here.

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