Student and activist groups are calling on Michigan State University to stop investing $50 million of its endowment with right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer’s secretive hedge fund.
The push for the university to divest began after ThinkProgress revealed last week that Michigan State was among 12 wealthy institutions invested in Renaissance Technologies, the East Setauket, NY-based hedge fund whose co-CEO Mercer has been accused of having racist views and finances Breitbart, a website that traffics in white nationalism.
In response to the article, the student group Michigan State College Democrats started a Change.org. petition calling on the university’s Chief Investment Officer Philip Zecher to divest. As of Thursday afternoon, the petition has over 1,200 signatures.
“A lot of people have been pointing out that it’s the university’s job to make money and we appreciate that. But we think change can be made when enough businesses divest,” Eli Pales, a junior-year student and press secretary of the Michigan State College Democrats, told ThinkProgress. “When enough entities pull out of their fund, it will no longer be profitable for Renaissance Technologies to keep Robert Mercer in his position.”
The online activist group Sleeping Giants — which launched a successful campaign to stop companies from advertising on Breitbart — also asked its 125,000 Twitter followers to send emails and tweets to university officials about divesting. The group linked to a Google doc outlining the campaign and posted the Twitter accounts and emails of university trustees and officials.
“This is not a right or left issue. Robert Mercer’s agenda is on full display at Breitbart with bigoted and sexist articles being printed daily,” Sleeping Giants wrote, next to screenshots of anti-women, anti-diversity, and pro-Confederate Breitbart headlines.
“So are they aware their investments in Renaissance Technologies are being systematically re-invested in hate speech and bigotry? Do they know their funds are working directly against their missions?” Sleeping Giants continued. “If your mission and values promote equality and inclusion, you can’t invest in divisiveness and exclusion. Period.”
Other institutions identified by ThinkProgress as having recent investments with Renaissance Technologies funds include:
– The Public Schools Employee Retirement System of Missouri
– Columbia University
– The Employee Retirement System of the City of Providence
– The Los Angeles Water & Power Employees Retirement Plan
– The National Academy of Sciences
– The Baltimore Fire and Police Employees’ Retirement System,
– The William Penn Foundation
– The American Physical Society
– The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
– Tufts Medical Center
– Furman University
Mercer is the co-owner and main funder of Breitbart — a media site that in the words of its executive chairman and former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, “the platform for the alt-right,” a euphemism for white nationalists and their sympathizers.
Breitbart’s deep ties and collaboration with white nationalists was revealed in a recent exposé published by BuzzFeed News. Through leaked emails, Buzzfeed revealed its former tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos collaborated on a story detailing the “alt-right” movement with prominent neo-Nazi Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer and white nationalist editor Devin Saucier, who gave line-by-line edits to the story before it was published. Breitbart’s top editors, including Bannon, embraced the story, only asking Yiannopoulos to smooth out some of the most blatantly racist passages.
Mercer is now funding Yiannopoulous’ own media company, Milo INC.
Michigan State has since issued a statement arguing that any effort to link its investment to white nationalism was unjustified. The statement, however, also confirmed its involvement with Renaissance Technologies, which the school justified by noting that the company’s founder, James Simons, is a major Democrat donor.
“The recent story in ThinkProgress concerning MSU’s investment strategy is misleading and purposely confusing. MSU is not financing any white nationalist organization or individual. We also do not have a financial position in any media outlet, Breitbart or otherwise,” the university said in a statement posted on its website.
The statement, however did not address the fact that the university “is investing with a man who funds organizations & people who are racist, sexist and xenophobic,” Sleeping Giants wrote on Twitter.
And Pales is hopeful that enough pressure could change the minds of university officials about divesting. He noted in the late 1970’s and early 80’s Michigan State divested from companies doing business with South Africa in protest of apartheid.
“The University should not be making investments off the backs of its marginalized student population,” read the student group’s petition. “Although we recognize Dr. Zecher has a responsibility to ensure positive returns on MSU’s endowment, we request he takes action to ensure MSU’s funds do not make their way into the hands of those like Robert Mercer.”