Berman seeks committee limits

Matt Graham

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

The Board of Regents’ Finance and Operations Committee voted down a resolution at its October meeting that proposed limits on the University Senate’s Social Concerns Committee.

But Regent Frank Berman, who was visibly irritated at the regents meeting, isn’t through with the committee. He plans to bring the issue up again in March, when he hopes to have more support. He wants the committee’s discussions to first be approved by administration before talks start.

University administration charges the Social Concerns Committee with monitoring University investments and making suggestions to the administration and regents when the University is involved in an ethical gray area.

But in reviewing the minutes of the committee over the past several years, Berman said he saw “a bunch of silliness.”

Issues Berman found

One of the issues discussed at the committee in recent years was the University’s divestment from Israel.

The issue was raised in fall 2002 and has been discussed intermittently ever since. Some who have addressed the committee feel the University should not invest in Israel because of the country’s perceived human rights violations against Palestinians.

Berman, a one-time executive committee member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobby group in the United States, said his political allegiances aren’t related to his issues with the committee

“My role with AIPAC is minimal at this point,” he said, though he also said, “I am thoroughly pro-Israel.”

Berman said he was prompted to look at the minutes after the committee made a recommendation to the board in September that the University act in accordance with the U.S. Constitution.

“I didn’t understand the sense in that,” he said. “We always have to act constitutionally.”

Along with the Israel divestment, another issue that drew Berman’s ire was a suggestion that the University refrain from doing business with Lehman Brothers investment bank because of its role in financing private penitentiaries.

Lehman Brothers is responsible for facilitating the sale of University bonds, said University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter. He said Lehman Brothers is no longer part of the prison industry, and he told the committee that it wasn’t an issue.

Berman said some of these discussions run counter to U.S. foreign policy, which he said is illegal for a state organization.

The committee’s role

Physics professor and Social Concerns Committee Chairman Ken Heller said the committee cannot violate federal government policy because the committee is not in a position to make policy.

“Mostly what the committee does is bring issues to the forefront; it doesn’t have any power,” he said.

The minutes on the committee’s Web site emphasize that the committee is not an official policymaking branch of the University, with a disclaimer:

“These minutes reflect discussion and debate at a meeting of a committee of the University of Minnesota Senate or Twin Cities Assembly; none of the comments, conclusions or actions reported in these minutes represent the views of, nor are they binding on, the Senate or Assembly, the Administration or the Board of Regents.”

Despite the disclaimer, Berman worried that some of the issues brought up in the meetings may look bad on official University meeting minutes. He’s also concerned that the Jewish community would take issue with the Israel discussion.

Berman brought up discussions of segregation in residence halls and in the General College, which he called nonissues. He also took issue with discussions of Chinese human rights violations, which he said would reflect poorly on University President Bob Bruininks when he travels there.

“That’s not mainstream stuff,” Berman said.

But while some may disagree with the topics discussed, Heller said anyone is free to bring an issue before the committee, even nonmembers. He said this openness is important because the size of University bureaucracy makes it impossible for the administration to be aware of everything the school does.

Oversight

Pfutzenreuter said the committee contacts him several times a year with concerns relating to University investments, and said he advises the committee when called upon. But overall, Pfutzenreuter said, he rarely deals with the committee.

Despite the minimal role of the committee in University affairs, Berman said the University needs to focus on finances when making its investments, not social concerns.

His proposed policy amendment would require the committee to check with “the president or a delegate,” such as University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg, prior to discussions. This would ensure that the committee is in compliance with the U.S. Constitution and would prevent the possibility of the committee’s discussions reflecting poorly on the University.

Berman said this would keep the “one-note johnnies” who try to drum up support for a single issue from disproportionately influencing the policy suggestions made by the committee.

But Heller said the committee already works with the administration and the General Counsel’s office.

Deputy General Counsel Bill Donohue said Rotenberg advises the committee as needed, though his oversight isn’t required.

Rotenberg is in Israel and could not be reached for comment.

Heller doubted the possibility of such oversight.

“You can’t stop people from saying whatever they want,” he said.