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Moving even a portion of an academic institution's operating budget or endowment can be difficult.
"A number of institutions have endowment gifts that are restricted, which means they can't easily be liquidated," says Ken Redd, of the National Association of College and University Business Officers, based in Washington. Half of all endowment assets are restricted for private universities and colleges, while three-quarters are restricted for public institutions, according to a NACUBO survey. While restrictions don't necessarily state whether funds can be invested in local banks, they could include alumni gifts of stocks that have specified directions on when and how they can be sold and diversified.
Most universities do keep a portion of their endowment liquid, typically 30 to 90 days of their operational budgets. This is the money most student groups are initially pushing to transfer into local banks and credit unions. However, schools often have multiyear contracts with major banks or investment companies to manage their short-term cash. "A school can decide for whatever reason they are going to break their contract, but there's a cost to that," says Mr. Redd.
There are a few cases where universities have moved money to smaller institutions. In 2007, Macalester College moved $500,000 into a community development bank in Minneapolis that funds local businesses in low-income communities. In 2010, Seattle University moved nearly $600,000 into local financial institutions that focus on making small enterprise loans to women and businesses in Seattle and internationally. This past spring, other schools including Fordham, in New York, and Tufts, near Boston, made similar commitments, says Mr. Apfel of REC.
"I think what we're seeing is the infancy of the movement," says Eric Hirsch, a sociology professor at Providence College in Rhode Island, who believes the movement will grow. "That's certainly the way the divestment movement happened."
In the 1960s and '70s Columbia University students were at the forefront of the movement that called for academic institutions to divest from companies doing business in white-minority-ruled South Africa. The idea was revived in the 1980s. In 1986, the US passed its first anti-apartheid legislation that imposed sanctions on South Africa, and many credit the student-led initiative for this measure.
The Occupy movement has added an extra burst of energy to the bank-transfer movement. In response to Occupy Oakland and students' vocal dissatisfaction with the financial crises, the board of trustees for the Peralta Community College District near San Francisco passed a motion late in 2011 to move assets away from large banking institutions.
"I would hope that other government entities, universities, and colleges take some steps to really align their funds with institutions whose values are more rooted in the community," says trustee Abel Guillen.