Bowing to pressure from MoveOn.org, Monsignor Franklyn M. Casale, the President of St. Thomas University in Miami, issued an ultimatum on March 13 to Anita Britt, his Chief Financial and Administrative Officer: choose between your work for this university or membership on the Board of American Outdoor Brands, the former Smith & Wesson Holding Company cited as the maker of the AR-15 that Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz used –you can’t do both. Britt chose the gunmaker.
It was an abrupt reversal for Monsignor Casale who as recently as March 9th issued a letter of support for Britt—stating that the university has a policy aligning with one adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “calling for reasonable approaches to gun violence.” Casale claimed that “American Outdoor Brands provides her the opportunity to participate in helping the company achieve its objectives of making our communities safer. Her role with the company does not conflict with her responsibilities here at St. Thomas. We look forward to her continued participation in our leadership.”
Four days later, in the wake of a well-publicized MoveOn petition that garnered nearly 300 signatures, Casale changed his mind and issued the ultimatum to Britt. Casale tried to explain his reversal to the Miami Herald: “After my statement of this past Friday, it has become clear that many of the sensible and reasonable solutions to this gun epidemic, which have been discussed previously, were becoming less and less clear.”
The MoveOn petition calling for Britt to step down was created by Praveen Kathpal, an Alexandria, Virginia resident who is a Vice President for an energy storage company. Kathpal also serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Energy Storage Association—an energy advocacy group. Claiming to have become an anti-gun advocate following the 2017 shooting at the Congressional a baseball practice at the YMCA ball field his son had attended, Kathpal sent an email to the Miami Herald warning “if individual influential people are urged to confront their place in America’s gun violence epidemic through societal pressure, they might make different choices.” Kathpal has also created a second MoveOn petition calling for the resignation of Smith and Wesson Board member Greg Gluchowski, a CEO for a Cincinnati company.
The St. Thomas reversal is just the latest attempt by MoveOn to control campus conversations on a long list of progressive causes including divesting from fossil fuels, increasing access to reproductive rights, expanding transgender rights, and most recently, gun control. Badgering board members is just the start. There are now calls for universities to divest from the gun industry.
Divestment campaigns at universities began in the 1970s when activists demanded divestment in South Africa because of its apartheid. Bloomberg reported that by 1988, 155 educational institutions had severed investment ties, pressured by protests at Harvard, Columbia, Michigan State and others. Aligning an institution’s money with its stated values is reasonable, especially when socially responsible investing might have positive impacts. But there are many gray areas.
More recently, divestment has focused on fossil fuels. A few years ago, the University of Dayton—a Catholic university in the middle of the rebounding coal and shale industry—announced its intention to become the first Catholic university in the country to divest coal and fossil fuels from its $670 million investment pool.
Although pressure for universities to divest from the gun industry has been unsuccessful in the past, it is likely to gain traction in the wake of the Parkland shooting. According to Bloomberg, the University of Notre Dame, with $11.8 billion under management, “adheres to guidelines from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which asks members to avoid companies that do harm.”
Notre Dame declined to say whether it holds firearms investments, citing a policy of not commenting on its investments. Bloomberg reports that some colleges and universities are prohibited from social activism. The University of Texas, with its $40 billion, is governed by a policy banning investments that would “advance social or political purposes.”
While some colleges, like Grinnell, have continued to honor agreements with donors who hold the highest positions at the National Rifle Association, it is likely that others will attempt to divest. Inside Higher Ed reports that “interest in divestment has spiked in recent weeks.” Some of the largest university money managers, like TIAA-Cref, have been targets of online petitions.
It is likely that the pressure St. Thomas University faced will be replicated elsewhere as anti-gun billionaires like George Soros will continue to bully colleges and universities with ties to the gun industry. Soros has a long history of this kind of bullying. In 1998, Soros funded an unsuccessful lawsuit against gun manufacturers. At the World Economic Forum in 2016, when Soros was asked by International Business Times whether he believed investors who support gun control should divest from firearms companies, he responded: “I’m very much against guns, and if it can be organized on a large enough scale, I wouldn’t be opposed to it.”
Still, his antipathy to guns has not prevented Soros from benefiting financially from the gun industry. Securities and Exchange Commission filings reviewed by the International Business Times demonstrated that Soros Fund Management was a top institutional shareholder in Vista Outdoors—one of the country’s top ammunition manufacturer, and Olin Corporation, which makes ammunition under the Winchester name.
The Soros Fund purchased a stake in Vista in early 2015 and held $11.4 million worth of shares in the company at the end of September 2015. Soros is not alone in this. While the American Federation of Teachers has backed gun control proposals, the pension savings of its members have been invested in the firearms industry, and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System owned $7 million worth of shares in Vista and Olin.
Whether the pressure to divest from the gun industry will succeed on additional college campuses remains to be seen. Northwestern University, Texas A & M University, the University of California system and the University of Michigan have already indicated that they do not have investments in firearm manufacturers. Others are likely to follow.