Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 25, 2010

Activists win Stanford investment change

Policy on minerals that come from areas of conflict or abuse is believed to be the first-of-its-kind for a university

by Chris Kenrick

Does the widespread use of cell phones and laptops inadvertently fuel the ongoing mass murder and rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

That was the question posed by Stanford University students, who persuaded university trustees at their June 9-10 meeting to adopt a groundbreaking policy on so-called "conflict minerals."

Reminiscent of earlier student protests against apartheid that sparked changes in Stanford investment policies, Stanford's STAND organization (founded some years ago as Students Taking Action Now Darfur) is pressing for greater attention to the sometimes questionable sources of raw materials used in Silicon Valley's signature products.

And the university has agreed.

With the trustees' vote, Stanford became the first university in the world to approve a proxy voting guideline advising a "yes" vote on "well-written and reasonable shareholder resolutions that ask companies for reports on their policies and efforts regarding their avoidance of conflict minerals and conflict mineral derivatives."

The minerals in question are tungsten, tin, gold and tantalum that make their way into Silicon Valley products. Sometimes they come from Congolese mines which, all sides acknowledge, are controlled by armed thugs who commit atrocities, including rape, murder and exploitation of workers in slave-labor conditions.

Pointing to murky supply chains of the minerals, several leading technology companies, including Hewlett Packard and Intel, say they are working on procedures to ensure that their raw materials come from responsible sources.

"In the electronics industry, the mining of these minerals takes place many layers before a final product is assembled, making it difficult if not impossible to trace the minerals' origins," said a joint statement from HP, Dell, Intel and Motorola.

"Minerals such as tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold, used in numerous industries including aerospace, automotive, electronics and jewelry, are extracted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other locations."

The companies sponsored a conference last fall to discuss the possibility of mapping supply chains and establishing a certification process for the minerals.

Rather than dealing with the companies directly, Stanford students targeted the university's investment policies as well as its close relationships with many Silicon Valley companies.

"We decided to work through the Stanford channel because Stanford has significant ties to electronics companies," said Caity Monroe, a junior history major and member of STAND.

"Stanford, as a huge investor with money, can make a more significant impact on these policies than a tiny student group."

"We're hoping this will inspire other campuses to do the same thing. We're trying to get in touch with some of the bigger ones on the East Coast."

The Stanford students found an ally in Palo Alto resident Mark Landesmann, a 1985 Stanford graduate who serves as an alumni representative on the university's Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility.

Now a technology executive, Landesmann in his Stanford days was involved in asking the university to divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. He learned about the Congo situation last year from watching an advance screening of the HBO documentary, "The Reporter," at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, where he is a member.

"During the discussion (after the movie) it became clear that universities and most institutional investors have been inexplicably silent on this issue and that the plight of the Congolese had not broken through to widespread public awareness," Landesmann said.

"I feel that the conflict-minerals issue is essentially a 'bystander problem,' where responsibility for funding the armed groups appears diffused among many investors, companies and consumers, so that no one feels like they need to be the one to speak up."

Approached by the students in January, Landesmann worked with them and others to draft a resolution that he thought would gain support.

He sought language that would be "effective in allowing the university to become the first to speak out on this issue and send a not-too-subtle hint that the continued indiscriminate purchase of conflict minerals is not acceptable."

Once the policy was unanimously approved by the Advisory Panel for Investment Responsibility, Landesmann presented it to the trustees' Special Committee on Investment Responsibility.

"By request of the chair I am not at liberty to describe certain details of the meeting, or to attribute statements to anyone, but the trustees came extraordinarily well prepared and asked excellent and highly detailed questions," Landesmann said.

Unlike the noisy anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s and the anti-sweatshop campaign that led to the 2007 occupation of the office of Stanford President John Hennessy, the conflict-minerals protest has been a quiet affair.

"The companies themselves admit that this is an important issue that needs to be addressed," Landesmann said.

"Everybody in a sense is on the same page, except for the armed groups themselves, of course."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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