Financial transparency: enfranchisement in the 21st century
As we reach astronomical levels of inequality worldwide, navigate a pandemic and combat the rise of global authoritarianism, world institutions have repeatedly accepted our frightening historical trajectory. Oftentimes, these institutions even cause injustice, actively refusing to divest from violence and inequity as the status quo has provided exponential concentrations of wealth and resources. With dwindling support toward systems of policing, state violence and imperialism, many of these institutions have decided that they do not need the consent of the governed.
Without transparency, the most powerful can maintain the illusion that they are operating in their constituents’ best interests, even as they silence those who dissent and stifle popular demands. If our present state of affairs persists, the powerful will continue to accumulate enough wealth to maintain their position if and when public faith erodes. Staring down the barrel of corporate inequality and planetary destruction, the longer we wait to question these institutions’ good intentions, the less leverage we will have to hold them accountable when they no longer pretend to need our support.
How can we reverse this trend before it’s too late?
Combating authoritarianism begins with uncovering the inconsistencies in these institutions’ self-portraits. Let’s consider Brandeis. Powerful groups only speak one language — money — so it’s no wonder that our University’s finances are shrouded in mystery. While Brandeis’ tax documents reveal vague details surrounding allocations and long-term investments, these reports offer a blurred picture of the University’s exact spending and ties with specific companies. If its finances were made public, how could Brandeis maintain its facade of social justice?
Students, families, faculty and donors pour funds and energy into this institution, and we deserve to know where our resources are going. If we aren't informed about the University’s investments, how can we be expected to contribute to it?
Brandeis can retain the backing of the Waltham community, its students’ tuition and its donors’ support through one of two paths: continuing to hide its finances or publicizing its operations. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that the University takes the second course. Brandeis must release the specifics of its budget, investments and endowment reports.
How can we know that the University’s finances are really so immoral?
There is a reason that Brandeis hasn’t made this information public already. Consider the headaches that university administrators across this country have endured from student movements for fossil fuel divestment. Devastating financial ties are not limited to the climate crisis, and when Brandeis has taken significant moral action — like the University’s 1987 divestment from South African apartheid — the administration only conceded after immense pressure from students, faculty and alumni. There is a difference of values and interests between the administration and those who are affected by its decisions. So what would we find out about Brandeis’ rotten support network if its finances were made public?
While we do not know Brandeis’ exact investments, the University boasts public ties to the weapons manufacturer Raytheon, which gave significant funds toward the construction of the Volen school while company representatives have hosted and participated in many Brandeis events. Raytheon has directly lobbied for wars that have devastated the Global South. The most immediate example might be the company’s role in the Yemeni crisis — Raytheon has produced bombs that have killed civilians and devastated cities, all the while lobbying for the United States’ continual involvement and funding of the conflict.
Brandeis’ unsavory ties are not limited to Raytheon. Their dining contract with Sodexo is not concealed but it is vital to know the specifics of the contract. The outsourcing company is notorious for paying its workers poverty wages in locations across the United States while crushing unionization efforts in this country, the Dominican Republic, Guinea, Morocco and Columbia. Benefiting from economic and racial antagonism throughout its entire business model, Sodexo sources ingredients from Koch foods, which has allowed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids at its processing plants resulting in the detention of 680 workers. As for its upper-level administration, Sodexo has famously invested in Corrections Corporation of America (now known as CoreCivic) — the largest private prison company in the U.S. — and continues to serve detention centers in eight other countries.
How might we expect the University to respond to these calls?
We can expect the University to resist calls for full financial transparency. Institutions like Swarthmore College have gone so far as to hold financial aid hostage: we could lose funds if we restructure our operations, and that money has to come from somewhere. This typical rhetorical maneuver is a hallmark of austerity politics — in our case, it is either a bluff or an example of self-deception. When studies are not funded by oil lobbyists, research has shown that “divestment does not yield discernible consequences — either positive or negative — for endowment values, at statistically significant levels.” Divestment has also proven to leave a meaningful imprint on the world economy. So far, the divestment movement has erased $14.56 trillion out of fossil fuel investment from 1,184 endowments.
The outdated belief that financial transparency would injure University operations is unfounded. Even if this were the case, however, transparency would allow the Waltham and Brandeis communities to suggest alternate allocations of resources so that financial aid would not be affected. A number of questionable expenditures — like President Ron Liebowitz’s 2018 salary of $956,000 — should be re-examined before a University has any right to threaten financial aid.
In the end, the quarrel between powerful institutions and their constituents points to the fundamental question of social history: who is allowed to hold power and make decisions? Financial transparency does not ask for lawlessness. If our University is not willing to corroborate its smiling self-portrait with evidence of its operations, then Brandeis’ stakeholders have no reason to keep faith in this institution. Democratization begins with tearing down the walls of secrecy. This information must be made public: academic and campus allocations, investments and endowment.
Authored by the Brandeis Financial Transparency Coalition
If you are interested in finding out more, follow us on Instagram @brandeis_ft.