Princeton prides itself on not being a pre-professional school and strives instead to be a university where the undergraduate curriculum is designed to cultivate critical thinkers and intellectuals. It is a place where students are encouraged to tackle difficult questions. Yet, Princeton has shied away from engaging in conversation about the ethics of finance.
Princeton already offers courses and programs that encourage critical inquiry into different fields — just not finance. The Values and Public Life certificate, sponsored by the Center for Human Values, and the Ethical Thought and Moral Values distribution requirement are good examples. In the economics department, ECO 386: History of Economic Thought considers the historical development of economic theories with reference to such foundational questions as the proper role of the state in the economy. The Wilson School has also, albeit only recently, added an ethics requirement. Surely a university that offers a course titled “The Ethics of Love and Sex” should be willing to take on the ethics of finance.
Princeton should require its students to engage in ethical inquiry or debate in a field that a full one-third of its graduates choose. Such a course probably belongs in the philosophy department in order to provide the widest perspective possible, but it should be cross-listed with ECO and ORFE. There could also be a practical component, including hands-on experimentation with investments that incorporate ethical considerations. This could take the shape of a year-long course in which students manage a socially responsible investment fund.
Theoretical and practical courses on ethics in finance would clearly contribute to the world beyond Princeton. But such courses could also be instrumental in stimulating a meaningful and relevant University-wide conversation about how Princeton invests its own $17 billion endowment. University endowments have been at the center of thoughtful conversations across the country about socially responsible investing. A New York Times article published on Dec. 4, 2012, describes students from several universities taking steps to fight climate change by asking their colleges to divest from companies with environmentally harmful practices. Here at Princeton, three professors presented a petition to University President Shirley Tilghman on Jan. 7 asking that Princeton divest from companies involved with manufacturing firearms in light of the Sandy Hook shooting. This petition was then brought to the Resources Committee on Jan. 10.
The Princeton Investment Company is responsible for investing our endowment with profit-maximization as the sole operating principle. However, as a non-profit educational institution, we do have an obligation to consider our investment decisions with reference to values that extend beyond profit maximization. The current investment guidelines are, in theory, constrained by “core University values,” yet nowhere are these values defined. An ethics in finance course would challenge students to think about how to incorporate community values within the framework of financial investment and, more generally, about the role of both corporations and financial institutions.
It’s time for Princeton students and trustees alike to think about financial investment not only as increasing the bottom line, but also as a tool that has the potential to either further or undermine our wider values. In our world, money talks, so let’s really talk about money.
Lily Adler ’15, Josh Shulman ’13, Yongmin Cho ’14 and Seongcheol Kim ’14 are members of the Princeton Coalition for Endowment Responsibility. They can be reached at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively.