Why It’s So Hard to Make an Endowment More Socially Responsible

When Wilder McCoy, a senior, became involved with the Sewanee student group, it had the word “divest” in its name — which they worried could come off as combative. The students eventually renamed their group the Socially Conscious Investment Club, in hopes of signaling their desire for cooperation.

“We really bought into the ethos of trying to make change from inside rather than outside, or taking more of a rah-rah approach,” Mr. McCoy said.

Nevertheless, some school officials didn’t look kindly on their call for campus votes.

E. Douglas Williams, the school’s treasurer, asked to meet Mr. McCoy and another student, Jackson Campbell, early last year. In that meeting, according to the pair, Mr. Williams said that bringing a faculty resolution was “militant.” They said Mr. Williams, who is also an economics professor, had also made pointed remarks about how much they gained from being at the university and how their actions reflected back on them.

Mr. McCoy, who had a scholarship pending, said he had taken Mr. Williams’s words as a veiled threat about their status on campus. It worried him enough that he took his concerns to a dean.

When I asked Mr. Williams about that meeting, he told me that he would never threaten a student and that he had reached out to the pair afterward to apologize for the way they felt about the encounter. He also denied using the term “militant” — then called me back within an hour to say he had, in fact, used the word.

That was just one of several exchanges with Mr. Williams and other people associated with the university that signaled that they weren’t quite taking the students’ arguments seriously. And given the lack of progress so far, the students have started to wonder whether the school is running out the clock.

“They are very aware that we are here for four years, and there are maybe three where people are active enough to be able to fight for change,” Mr. McCoy said. “So I think they are very invested in a strategy of waiting for some people to graduate.”