A look at college investments that have been questioned

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BOSTON — Some of the nation's top universities have drawn criticism for making investments in certain industries that activists say run counter to the schools' mission.

Many financial experts don't see a problem, contending that endowments have a duty to make sound financial decisions above all else.

Colleges are split. Some have stopped investing in industries such as fossil fuels or prisons or have opted to invest in mutual funds billed as "socially responsible." Others put few restrictions on their investments.

A look at some of the investments that have stirred debate:

Tobacco

Several universities agreed in the 1990s to stop investing in tobacco, citing its health dangers. And since then, many campuses have banned tobacco entirely. But records obtained by The Associated Press show many colleges continue to invest in major tobacco companies.

In 2014, the University of Illinois banned smoking on all campus property. But the same year, records show, it invested in Philip Morris, one of the biggest U.S. tobacco companies. Similarly, some University of Wisconsin campuses have banned tobacco, but the system still invests in tobacco producers.

Dr. Sarah Van Orman, a past president of the American College Health Association, said it can be problematic for colleges to support industries that are destructive to student health. The association banned tobacco and alcohol from its own portfolio.

"A lot of people aren't even aware that they're investing in some of these industries," Van Orman said.

The University of Wisconsin cited a policy requiring the school to "maximize financial return, given an appropriate level of risk" while weighing "the importance of public concerns about corporate policies/practices that are discriminatory or cause substantial social injury."

The Associated Press left a message seeking comment with officials from the University of Illinois.

Alcohol

The University of Texas system, where alcohol has been blamed for five student deaths since 2005, authorized $2.4 million to expand alcohol prevention programs last year. But in 2014, the system's investment arm also bought shares of the alcohol makers Bacardi and Anheuser Busch valued at more than $2 million.

Marcie Smith, executive director of the Responsible Endowments Coalition, said it's a conflict of interest to invest in alcohol while seeking to curb its use.

"One of the reasons why there isn't a lot of transparency is because university boards are reluctant to have it exposed that they're invested in these kinds of industries," said Smith, whose group promotes ethical endowment investing.

The university did not immediately respond to a message from the AP.

Land investments

The leaders of 39 environmental groups and think tanks sent a letter to Harvard University in 2014 criticizing what they called "troubling investments in farmland, forests and other natural resources around the world."

A company owned by Harvard's endowment had reportedly been fined by Chilean courts for logging protected forests, and the manager of a Harvard subsidiary had been arrested in Romania for accepting bribes to purchase timberland.

Days before, Harvard students rallied on campus against timber plantations in Argentina owned by the school's endowment. In an op-ed in the campus newspaper, a leader of Harvard's investment arm countered the plantations are managed responsibly. The university declined to comment.

The Oakland Institute think tank reported in 2011 that Harvard and Vanderbilt University supported companies that bought vast tracts of land in Africa, sometimes displacing local residents. The institute denounced the universities, saying the investments exploited local communities to pursue commercial farming.

Those details were uncovered through investigative work by activists and, in some cases, tax forms that include some investment information. In the 2014 letter to Harvard, the 39 leaders complained about "the lack of transparency of Harvard's endowment," adding that they worried "these incidents constitute merely the tip of the iceberg."

Vanderbilt did not immediately respond to a message from the AP.

Gun makers

After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, a New York Times columnist reported that several colleges, including the University of California system, invested in the firearm maker Bushmaster, which made the rifle used in the massacre.

Groups including the Campaign to Unload have formed, calling on colleges to divest from guns. The University of California told one of its student newspapers that it withdrew $35 million in investments, although students have continued to push for a promise that the school will not make future investments in the gun industry. The university did not immediately comment.

Students at Boston University also called on the private school to divest from guns, but the trustees rejected the idea last year, saying that they could not reach a consensus and that the issue "is not directly related to the operations of the university."


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