Today Amnesty International USA released its first Limited Partner Scorecard, grading 10 of the largest university investment offices in the United States on their human rights due diligence processes when it comes to investments in venture capital. Together, investment offices for these universities – Duke, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, the University of California system, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Texas and Texas A&M system, and Yale – control over $426 billion dollars in assets under management.
Seven of these universities (Duke, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas System) received a failing grade when it comes to whether they conduct adequate human rights due diligence on their investments in venture capital firms. Only three of the universities (Harvard, the University of California System and Yale) received a grade of C or better.
“The fact that many of the country’s leading universities don’t care to make sure their billions in investments are upholding human rights is appalling and completely irresponsible,” said Michael Kleinman, National Director for Tech and Human Rights at Amnesty International USA.
University endowments are one of the main sources of funding for venture capital firms, yet many of these endowments fail to conduct even minimal human rights due diligence when investing in venture capital. As such, they are effectively turning a blind eye, and thereby increasing the risk that their investments could be funding any number of human rights violations and abuses around the world, be they related to labor, privacy, or even repression of ethnic minorities.
The largest university endowments devote a substantial share of their portfolios to private investments, including private equity and venture capital. According to the 2020 NACUBO-TIAA Study of Endowments, endowments greater than $1 billion hold, on average, 25.6% of their investments in private equity and venture capital.1
Unfortunately, university investment offices can’t assume that the venture capital firms in which they invest respect human rights. In 2021, Amnesty International USA published Risky Business: How leading venture capital firms ignore human rights when investing in technology, highlighting the lack of human rights due diligence by leading VC firms. Amnesty International surveyed fifty-three of the world’s largest VC firms and start-up accelerators, finding that only a single firm had human rights due diligence processes that even potentially met the standards set forth by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The other fifty-two firms and accelerators – over 98% of those surveyed – did not conduct human rights due diligence that met the standards of the UN Guiding Principles. Amnesty International could not find evidence that forty-four of the firms and accelerators surveyed – 83% of the total – conducted any human rights due diligence.
This lack of human rights due diligence has three significant impacts. First, it means that VC firms are more likely to invest in companies whose products and services are directly implicated in ongoing human rights violations and abuses, such as companies that provide support to the Chinese Government’s repression of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang and across China.2 Second, it means that VC firms support companies whose business models undermine human rights. This includes support for companies whose products threaten privacy rights and labor rights.3 Third, the lack of human rights due diligence by leading VC firms increases the risk that, going forward, these firms fund companies developing new and “frontier” technologies that will negatively impact human rights.4
Yet, it is not just the venture capital firms who are responsible; responsibility also lies with those large institutional investors like universities that are funding the VC firms, and who are reaping the rewards, too.
Companies and investors have a responsibility to respect all human rights wherever they operate in the world and throughout their operations. This is a widely recognized standard of expected conduct set out in international business and human rights standards, including the UN Guiding Principles. To meet this responsibility, companies and investors – including institutional investors who invest in VC funds as Limited Partners (LPs) – must take proactive and ongoing steps to identify and respond to the potential or actual human rights impacts of their investments. This entails undertaking human rights due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for their human rights impacts.
For this report, Amnesty International USA assessed each university investment office against 14 separate indicators, covering their commitment to responsible investment, their focus on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues and human rights due diligence, their stewardship of and engagement with their investments, and their commitment to disclosure and transparency.
1 NACUBO-TIAA Study of Endowments 2020 p. 9
2 “Risky Business: How leading venture capital firms ignore human rights when investing in technology, Amnesty International, 2021, at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/
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Find the report here