University divests stock holdings in Burma

Emily Dalnodar

Stocks in Total Oil Company are finally out of the University’s hands after months of protest by the Minnesota Free Burma Coalition — but the group is not planning a celebration.
The University’s Office of Asset Management sold the last of its $1.5 million stock in Total Oil Company, putting a new twist on a holdings resolution.
Stock was sold off in three parts — one-third at the end of 1997, one-third in January 1998, and the remaining portion sometime after Jan. 31, said Sheila Warness, associate director of the Office of Asset Management.
The Social Concerns Committee didn’t learn of the stock release until Wednesday morning — the day of their final recommendation on whether to divest from Total stocks.
Total Oil is building a pipeline in Burma, a country the size of Texas in southeast Asia. The country has been a source of controversy since 1988, when an oppressive military regime took control. Concerns stem from the company’s financial support of the regime.
The Minnesota Free Burma Coalition has actively lobbied University administrators to divest stocks since December. Wednesday’s meeting was to be one of the last legs of the divestment process.
The committee was set to bring forth their divestment resolution to University officials, but now that there are no stocks to divest from, their agenda has changed.
Warness said stocks were not dropped because of pressure from the Social Concerns Committee or the Minnesota Free Burma Coalition. Stocks were sold off simply because it was a profitable move right now in the market.
But the committee is planning a retroactive resolution, essentially taking credit for divestment anyway, and also stopping any further investment in Total from happening.
A second resolution is also in the works to deal with investments the University has with other companies doing business in Burma.
“This company does hide a lot of bad things that are going on,” said Eric Bauer, professor of cell biology and neuroanatomy, who is also chair of the committee.
“I hope in the future we will not invest in Total until the country is returned to its people,” said Art Geffen, professor of English language and literature.
But without a new resolution to prevent further investment with Total, the University could just as easily pick up more stocks from the company tomorrow if the market changed, Warness said.
Not everyone believes it is as simple as that, however.
“I’m not terribly surprised the University’s done this. They got rid of their investments to save face,” said Mick Schommer, member of the Minnesota Free Burma Coalition. “It’s an awfully sneaky tactic for them to use.”
But University officials denied this claim, maintaining the financial decision was strictly routine.
“It made it appear as a business decision and not a moral decision,” Geffen said. “And we were about to make a moral decision.”