In what appears to be a national first among colleges, Occidental College has banned any future investments in companies that manufacture military style assault weapons.

In what appears to be a national first among colleges and universities, Occidental College has banned any future investments in companies that manufacture military-style assault weapons. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

In a move that activists described as the first of its kind for any American college or university, Occidental College in Los Angeles is pledging to stay away from any investments in companies that manufacture military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines for general public sale.

The recent move by Occidental College trustees came at the urging of faculty members who were horrified by the December 2012 massacre of 26 students and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and other mass shootings.

“It’s a statement of principle about the mission of higher education to be a voice of reason in a world of a lot of violence,” said Occidental politics professor Peter Dreier, who was a prime mover on the issue with religious studies professor Dale Wright. Colleges and other schools should “be held to a higher standard in their investment portfolios,” Dreier said.

Occidental College found that its endowment does not have investments in companies that manufacture military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition for public sale, and its board of trustees voted to ensure that it stays away from any such stocks in the future, according to trustees Chairman Christopher Calkins.

The trustees were swayed by the fact that colleges, high schools and elementary campuses have more frequently become targets for such mass shootings, Calkins said.

Those assault weapons “in private hands pose a particular risk to these institutions. We felt it was important to take a position on it,” he said.

Jennifer Fiore, executive director of the Campaign to Unload, an organization that is working for such divestment from the gun industry, said it appeared that Occidental was the first college or university to take such a stand and that she expected others to follow this year.

“This was great news,” she said. “I believe other campuses will take notice and see this as a step they can easily take as well.” She likened it to the beginnings of what became a widespread movement in the 1980s for colleges and other institutions to divest from South Africa to protest racial apartheid.

Large public pension funds have moved to divest from manufacturers of assault weapons. Last year, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) began divesting from those companies and the Los Angeles city pension funds took similar steps.

At Occidental, Calkins said trustees had to overcome the general reluctance by most colleges to limit investments in ways that could hurt schools’ finances. While the college does not control the mutual funds or group funds it holds, those funds’ managers were told about the concerns on the weapons issue and it appears unlikely that any would invest in assault weapons manufacturers, he said.

The trustees also supported Occidental President Jonathan Veitch in signing a letter with other college presidents calling for a reinstatement of a national ban on such military-style weapons.

After the Connecticut shooting, Cerberus Capital Management, a large equity firm that holds public pension investments, committed to sell the company that made the Bushmaster rifle used at Sandy Hook Elementary. But so far that sale of the Freedom Group has not happened.

The National Rifle Assn., which has opposed such divestment efforts, did not return calls seeking comment.

Another issue stirring calls for divestments on college campuses is coming from students and activists concerned about the impact of pollution on global climate. They are urging UC and other schools to sell off holdings in major oil and gas firms.

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

 

Twitter: @larrygordonlat