Last year, Texas A&M's student newspaper, The Battalion, produced a groundbreaking investigative report that traced their university's foundation investments to conflicts in Sudan and exploitive mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo among other human rights tragedies. This month, Frank talks with Texas A&M student and Betty Gage Holland Award-winning Battalion reporter, Spencer Davis, along with incoming editor in chief, Samantha King, about the three-month investigation.
Frank: Hi, everyone, and welcome to another installment of the Student Press Law Center’s monthly Podcast to catch up on developments in the news affecting your right to gather and publish information. The Student Press Law Center’s a nonprofit advocate for the rights of student journalists. We’re online at splc.org and we hope you’ll call or email us with any questions about your own legal rights of access.
Well, university foundations are important drivers of policy on campuses, but they exist in a shadowy nether-region between public and private. Even though the state universities that host them are subject to a variety of state disclosure laws, their foundations often take the position that they are exempt by virtue of being incorporated as nonprofit corporations.
These entities control literally many tens of billions of dollars in donor’s investments, Harvard University alone holds investments in excess of $30 billion, and the University of Texas at Austin in excess of $25 billion. And yet, many of them resist opening their board meetings or their records to public scrutiny.
Well, a team of student journalists at Texas A&M University did remarkable work in holding their foundation accountable, using publicly available documents to examine the way that their university invested its money and whether those investments were always chosen with the best public policy imperatives in mind.
We’re joined by two student journalists from Texas A&M University, Spencer Davis, the reporter who works don this series of stories published in November of 2015 called, “A dark spot in Texas A&M’s Investments,” published in the Battalion in November 2015. And Samantha King, the incoming editor-in-chief at the Battalion who was news editor at the time.
Both of these students are seniors at Texas A&M Spencer Davis is majoring in finance, Samantha King in communication. Samantha has ambitions to remain in the journalism field. Spencer, who just completed an internship on Capitol Hill with Senator John Cornyn, is interested in going into the political consulting field.
And we welcome and thank both and congratulate them on having just been presented with the Betty Gage Holland Award, sponsored by the University of Georgia and co-sponsored by the Student Press Law Center, which recognizes outstanding public records journalism done by college students every year. So, with that, Spencer Davis can you take us into where the idea for this project, the “dark spot in Texas A&M’s investments,” came from. How did the concept come about and then how did you go about actually digging into these investments.
Spencer Davis: Absolutely, so this wasn’t another story about best intentions and unintended consequences. It was a story about, really willful ignorance in what we are investing in. It was very global to begin with. The idea came about in a conversation last August where I was talking with a friend who at the time was in the leadership of the student senate at Columbia University. And he mentioned how he lead a student initiative to divest their endowment from specific companies that they saw doing harm overseas. Which has really been a trend in universities in the last 30 years, really started with Apartheid South Africa that these major endowments would start looking into what they’re invested in. What are these companies doing, and does that sit with the goals and morals of higher education?
So, that conversation got me thinking, “Hey, I’ve never looked at A&M’s endowments,” So I went online and found the full list of all companies that the university’s invested in, all 2200 companies, and started looking through think-tanks, NGOs, government reports on what those companies were actually doing.
Frank: You said you went and looked online, this is not something that a lot of foundations go out of their way to make transparent, so how did you go about finding where these investments are located online.
Spencer: Well, that was actually pretty easy because Texas A&M has their endowment and their foundation, which as you mention is usually very opaque and it’s very hard to look into foundations. We were dealing specifically with the endowment. Which at Texas A&M is about 8, 9 times larger than our foundation, which usually strictly deals with money coming in to fund athletic programs and doesn’t necessarily deal with the academic portions.
So, it was interesting that you mentioned how large the University of Texas Endowment is, at about $27.2 billion. And, it’s funny, the Texas Constitution actually has Texas A&M and UT’s endowments joined together, partially, to where we have this thing called a permanent university fund that’s about $17.2 billion. And so some of our money is actually included in that total. But that makes us, out of the top universities in the country, involved in the second-most valuable. And in the top ten, we are the only universities that don’t have any kind of vehicle or committee to look at who we’re invested in.
Frank: So, you get ahold of this list of corporations, and then you go about starting to research, basically what are the human rights records of these corporations. So, what were some of the resources that you relied on, there, to look into the activities of the corporations in which Texas A&M invested?
Spencer: Right, because it was 2,200 companies, it would have been very difficult for me to have gone through and Googled or looked through the financial reports of every single one of those companies. So, even today, the list we ended up with of about 50 companies, I know wasn’t very comprehensive, and I know there were other companies on that list. There’s probably some other ones, bad ones, lurking.
But to kind of do this, I really had to leverage people who were more experienced with looking into school endowments and foundations, as well as just companies and multinational companies around the world. So, I leveraged and kind of built a network of people at the BBC, Reuters, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International was a big one, Oxford University, even people like survivors of the Darfur genocide, which we ended up talking about a lot; old friends in Tanzania, I ended up getting a lot of help from people around there. Because, I’ll never forget kind of waking up three nights in a row in October at 3 am to talk to people via Skype in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But that’s really who I was able to find all of these companies and what they were doing through.
Frank: So, one of the lists that you were looking at is a list put out by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which details companies that have faced accusations of violating what’s called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Which is an act that prohibits things like engaging in bribery, the kinds of business practices that would be unlawful in the United States are comparably unlawful if they’re done overseas by a United States-based company. So, these are the kinds of records that I can imagine being kind of intimidating or forbidding to a student journalist to dig into and to understand. What was that process like, trying to make sense out of these documents?
Spencer: I think I had a leg up in that I’m a finance major, so I could understand how to read through a financial annual report and kind of read between the lines, but it also took a lot of reaching out to people like the Department of Justice, specifically for those foreign corrupt practices act companies.
I was able to go through the list, but I didn’t have a lot of information outside of what they were posting, so I had to actually call the Department of Justice and the SEC offices that handle Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations specifically, and of course wasn’t able to get anyone on record who wanted to talk about these companies specifically to our endowment but I was able to get a lot of leg work and get some wisdom out of those resources.
Frank: And we should point out that these were not subjective judgements on your part as a journalist. You weren’t making an independent evaluation that these were somehow companies in which the university shouldn’t invest or companies that were “bad companies.” You’re relying on outside, third-party sources such as that SEC list and also, interestingly, a list kept by the comptroller of the state of Texas which has banned certain companies from being on the approved list of investments with teacher’s retirement system, the teachers’ pension plan, because those companies are implicated in genocide in the Sudan. And yet you found that the A&M system was under no such restriction and was investing in some of these very same companies which the teachers’ retirement system would not have been legally allowed to invest in.
Spencer: Right, so I knew early on that the ethos of a junior student reporter was poor compared to the available ethos afforded by agencies specifically set up to investigate issues like this with multinational companies in the U.S. So, that’s how I ended up relying on the SEC and the state comptroller’s list, which was an interesting thing in itself, as you mentioned, because it applied directly to other large public investment funds in Texas.
Where in 2007 the state legislature of Texas told the state comptroller of Texas, make a list of companies that are “directly involved in genocide in Darfur” and we will no longer allow our teacher retirement service and another large fund to invest in said companies.’ So, today that list stands at about 25 companies, and it continues to be updated every year as is necessitated by the statute. And we are, as of when we published this in November, we were invested in 10 of those.
And we use that as a way of saying, this isn’t just out own opinion about it. This is what our elected officials in the state of Texas are saying about it. And very interestingly about that is that the only real trouble I had getting any kind of records or any kind of information wasn’t so much on the financial side of that, people were very available to pass that on, it was kind of getting opinions and quotes and answers out of the school administration.
But, funny enough, the chancellor of the Texas A&M system today, John Sharp, was actually a former state comptroller of Texas. Not during the time when this law would have applied to him where he would have been looking at these companies, but he served a similar role in previous legislation.
Frank: Well, let me talk to Samantha King for a second. So, Spencer has walked us through how he developed this story. You’re the news editor of the Battalion, and this guy who’s a finance major presents you with what sound alike a pretty forbidding story, here, that’s obviously going to eat a lot of column inches. What was your reaction and how did you go about making that into a digestible story that a mass audience could appreciate?
Samantha King: Right, well, Spencer came into our office, it was the first week of school. He talked to myself and my co-news editor at the time, Katy Stapp, and then-editor in chief Aimée Breaux, and he had his ducks in a row. He’d done a lot of research up to that point; he presented us with these huge manilla packets with, I mean, pages and pages of research and numbers. And I’m not ashamed to admit, as a communication major, I was quite overwhelmed by all of that, but he really knew what he was talking about. He was able to put it into terms that we were able to understand, and because we knew he was so knowledgeable about this and so invested in this research and this story, we knew that we were going to be able to take that and turn it into something that our readers would be able to digest, as well.
We knew that was going to take some work and some planning, and essentially what we told him was, run with this, we’ll support you with this. Get as much of the work done as you can, here; let’s operate on a deadline that is pretty transient. We didn’t really set a strict, ‘November this is running.’ We let him really do the work on this and supported him in the ways that we could, and in the meantime we were constantly brainstorming ways that we wanted to present it.
Talking about, you know, there’s a lot of information in terms of the investment amount and the return on the investment. And we really had to think about this from the standpoint of for your average college student reader, which is our audience. How am I going to be able to best present this so that they can understand months and months of research in a four-day series?
So, it came down to a lot of info graphics. We had timelines, we had charts, we had – even just breakdowns of what the board of directors looked like. And it really ended up being something that was really digestible and easy to understand but at the same time we didn’t want to make it too elementary. I mean, it is, it’s a complex issue. It was something that, I can’t say enough, a lot of work went into compiling and we wanted to give it the space that it deserved.
I think all said and done, in terms of page count, it took up, I want to say, six, maybe seven or eight broadsheet pages and a lot of it was just text. But we firmly believe here at the Battalion that good stories deserve the space and we were willing to give this excellent story the space that it deserved and tell the story in the way that was going to make it easiest for our readers to understand.
And I think that we did accomplish that goal, and, I mean, packaging it was great. We had some really talented graphic artists working with us, as well, who were able to visually kind of represent the turmoil and the ill-practices of the stories artistically in a way that made it engaging.
From a page-design standpoint, the front cover of the day one paper was, the only story on that page was the first story in that issue, the “A dark spot on Texas A&M’s investments.’ And it really caught the eye of people in the stands, and we really did our groundwork, too, our legwork online in terms of promoting it on social media. And I think it was a very successful team effort from taking these months and moths of work, these thousands of words, and packaging it in a way that our college student audience and, beyond that, people could understand.
Frank: We should invite everyone to visit the website of the newspaper. It’s thebatt.com, “batt” with two-t’s, as in short for “battalion.” TheBatt.com where Spencer Davis’s four-part series, and the graphics accompanying it, are displayed. And Spencer, I think we should emphasize that you’re not alleging through any of this research that the investment strategies pursued by Texas A&M were unlawful, but you do raise some serious ethical questions about some of the judgments that they’ve made in their choice of companies. Can you maybe give a highlight or two of some of the questionable ethical practices that your research uncovered.
Spencer: Absolutely, and I think that’s something important to note is that the caveat here is that I never intended to put administrators on trial with the warlords I was talking about. But the question that kind of followed that was, again, indifference is its own sin. But specifically looking at some companies that we were looking at, we have examples of, of course the Sudan companies being directly involved in the genocide in Darfur.
We have, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we had, there was an open-pit copper mine called the Tilwezembe Copper Mine that was owned by Glencore-Xsrtata that we had invested millions into and lost millions as they lost company value through the stock market over three years, but had continued to keep us invested and really plow more money into this investment. And you had very credible video footage from reporters at the BBC of children as young as 10 and 11 years old working in that copper mine.
And that was a way I kind of reach rout and established sources and got wisdom was actually reaching out to the reporter that had originally published the video of the children working in the copper mine.
Frank: Well, for someone who’s a student at another campus who’s maybe interested in trying to replicate a project like this of their own, any tips or pieces of advice about how to go about doing it. Maybe things you learned or things you wish you’d known going in?
Spencer: Yeah, I think the first challenge is to not be afraid of the numbers. Most of the journalists listening to this or the journalists out there in college newspapers right now are currently working in the largest, richest, most complex, and most consequential organization that they ever will, right now. And because everything begins and ends with money, if you as editors begin to take a better look at the business side of education, I think you’ll make a huge difference. Even if it’s not for another 10 or 20 years.
That’s kind of, i wanted to talk for a second about the consequences of this because a lot of people will ask, ‘Well, what became of this? What happened after 8,000 words, you know, seven or eight broadsides, massive column inches – what came of this?’ I think the long answer is, awareness of a new issue, some public debate on campus, and making the administration more aware of the scrutiny that they are under
The short answer is, nothing. No companies were divested from once they were exposed. No policy was changed, and no committee was set up to even look at the issues in our portfolio. So, when friends and loved ones will often ask me that question, ‘What did this story accomplish?’ it’s usually posed with a tone that really asks, ‘Why did you waste so much time on this if it’s changed so little?’
And my answer to this, I think it’s important to other editors or reporters looking at, thinking about looking at the same thing, is that the point of a college education is not to see immediate results, but to educate a better generation that can take the issues that they’ve learned about and implement change once they’ve come of age. It’s call to mean that colleges are investing in change that won’t be seen for 10 or 20 years, and similarly I find this to be the role of a college press, to give alternative views to students about what they can do when they are our leaders 10 or 20 years from now.
Frank: Well, I want to thank and congratulate you, again, Samantha King and Spencer Davis on a really groundbreaking piece of investigative reporting that is exemplary for editors and reporters around the country to look at as a guide. It’s online at TheBatt.com and we encourage you to check it out and to check into the investment performance of your own campuses. If you’re looking for help getting access to records and putting them to use, the Student Press Law Center is there to help. We’re online at splc.org. We’re on Twitter @splc, and we’re just a phone call away: 202-785-5450. Get in touch any time you’ve got a question about your own legal rights. Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you next month.