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Wednesday, October 31,2012

Student group: OU needs to go further to become conflict-free

By Elizabeth Cychosz

Members of an Ohio University student organization are calling for new meetings of an ad-hoc committee in charge of developing conflict-free policies for the university.

"I think administrators truly see the value in becoming a conflict-free campus but are hesitant to make changes to policies in order to substantially support those values," said Jack Spicer, co-president of OU's chapter of STAND Against Genocide.

The Ad Hoc Committee on Socially Responsible Practices was formed in February "to provide a recommendation about the appropriate course the university should take in regard to the procurement of products containing conflict minerals from the Congo," explained OU spokesperson Katie Quaranta. It consists of 12 members from the student, faculty and administrative sectors at the university.

The first issue the committee was given to assess relates to the mission of STAND to make OU a conflict-free campus. STAND wants OU to admit awareness of the relationship between "conflict minerals" and human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to pressure electronics companies to trace their supply chains to conflict-free sources.

On Aug. 27, the office of OU President Roderick McDavis released a statement created by the committee, as suggested by STAND. 

"Ohio University recognizes the humanitarian crisis taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the role of conflict minerals as one of the primary drivers for this violence," the statement said. "Given our significant annual expenditures for electronics products that likely contain these minerals, we recognize our own responsibility and indirect link to the crisis."

Since the statement was released, no new items have been placed on the committee's agenda, nor has the committee met again.

"The committee is not meeting because we have completed the task that was assigned to us," said John Biancamano, chair of the committee and OU's general counsel for legal affairs. "We do not have any other items on our agenda at the present time."

In a recent press release, STAND charged that the committee was "suspended… prior to the completion of the committee's work on the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative," which was supposed to include three parts – a symbolic statement, an investment policy and a procurement policy.

"We need concrete procurement and investment policies to ensure that socially responsible practices are consistently carried out and that they're carried out after McDavis' administration leaves Ohio University," said Sarah Volpenhein, co-president of STAND.

"It's not that we're unhappy with the symbolic statement," added Ellie Hamrick, media and public relations liaison for STAND. "I don't want to make it sound like we're ungrateful for what they've done so far. But it does have to be followed up."

The Office of the President said the statement was recommended by the committee as the best current course of action, given that there's currently a lack of information regarding electronics companies' sources of raw materials.

"One of the university's primary concerns is finding a way to get accurate third-party verification about whether or not a company uses conflict-free materials," Quaranta said. "It would be an empty gesture to change policies without a reliable way to verify that information."

The Procurement Office is alerting the university's suppliers of the new conflict-free policy and using the statement as a guide when purchasing products for the university, she added.

"We are very aware of the need to utilize our collective buying power to encourage companies to become conflict free," said President McDavis. "We will continue to monitor the procurement climate and take appropriate steps to support the purchase of certifiable conflict-free products as they become more available."

STAND members say they're disappointed with what they describe as the administration's lack of action in regard to conflict-free products.

"This idea that 'There aren't any conflict-free products available so there's nothing that we can do about it' — that's not true at all," Hamrick said. "That's why (the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative) exists. It's because conflict-free products aren't widely available."

According to STAND members, other universities, including Duke, Stanford and Clark, have already adopted conflict-free policies covering either investment or procurement in addition to their symbolic statements. STAND has drafted examples of both for OU officials, in which the group details ways of evaluating companies based on a spectrum of social responsibility. OU, it says, should give preference to companies that are making efforts to become conflict-free, even if they haven't yet reached that status.

"I think (OU's administrators) thought, mistakenly, that if they take one step toward going conflict-free, that we'll be satisfied, and that we'll back off and move on to something else," Hamrick said. "But that's not actually the case, because we're in this for the long haul."

STAND is circulating a petition that calls for the committee to be reconvened and/or for the instatement of conflict-free investment and procurement policies. It is also working on a photo campaign entitled, "Don't Leave a Job Half Done," and it is reaching out to alumni and the Athens community for support.

STAND meets Wednesdays at 8 p.m. in 220 Bentley Hall.


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