For the past year, the Rev. Al Sharpton has been part of the small but growing campaign to press colleges to diversify the group of financial experts who manage their endowments.

“Colleges have huge endowment investments and they get federal funds,” Sharpton said recently from the Manhattan office of his National Action Network. “They have to be held accountable. You can't just talk about diversity among the student body and not diversify how you do asset management.”

The prominent civil rights leader is singling out Amherst College, a well-endowed school in western Massachusetts with a national reputation for student diversity, to release data on its endowment managers and to invest more dollars in minority-led funds. “How do you have this reputation as one of the most elite schools in the country, but you have an almost apartheid asset management?” he asked.

This relatively new branch of advocacy, Sharpton said, matches his racial and economic equity mission. “If you have diversified asset managers, they would not invest in projects that would be detrimental to the community,” he said.

In a Nov. 19 letter responding to Sharpton, the college’s chairman of the board, Andrew Nussbaum, said Amherst is conducting research and developing “diverse pipelines,” but because it’s early “quantitative metrics are not a useful source of information at this time.” The small college with 1,800 students has a $3.7 billion endowment.

Sharpton’s appeal to Amherst is part of a broader campaign to diversify college endowment managers. Leaders of that effort include former Massachusetts congressman Joe Kennedy, former Harvard Business School professor Steven Rogers and diversity officers on campuses around the country. So far the results have been limited.

A new study by Morgan Stanley helps explain why: 70 percent of white asset managers believe incorporating diversity into their investment decisions lowers returns. Activists dispute that conclusion.

“This should be a fiduciary question of performance, and studies show that diverse talent improves performance,” said Robert Raben, executive director of the Diverse Asset Managers Initiative, which promotes hiring more people of color and women to manage financial assets.

“If the only Latina that you interact with at your hedge fund is the woman who comes in at 6 p.m. and empties your trash or takes care of your kids, it's very hard to imagine a Latina managing your $400 million fund,” Raben said.

Young adults file out a doorway, down stairs and onto a walkway at dusk.
FILE — Students walk out of Johnson Chapel at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., Wednesday, April 24, 2019.
Jessica Hill AP

Since the murder of George Floyd, Raben says some top colleges — including Harvard, Georgetown and the University of California — have become more transparent about diversifying their endowment portfolios.

For example, Raben said Harvard Management Corporation has begun meeting with African American, Hispanic and Asian American investment managers about the school's $53 billion endowment, the country's largest, "We haven't seen a huge flow of dollars yet," he added. "I credit Harvard for now. I'm cautiously optimistic."

Other colleges have invested in minority-led funds.

“But not nearly enough,” Raben said. “A critical mass of universities at least are having a public conversation about whether or not they work with women and people of color in in their endowments.”

Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said diversifying asset managers aligns with her group’s long-term goal of advancing racial equity beyond admissions and hiring.

“Those of us who lead this work on our campuses are typically advocating for a broader, more holistic view of the operations of an organization,” she said.

Internally, the group’s members are seeking to hold colleges accountable to their professed values.

“I think the goal is to stay focused on an objective, which is to be what institutions hold themselves out to be: organizations that value diversity, that value equity, that value inclusion,” Granberry Russell said.

While she admits a pipeline issue exists — white men own nearly 99 percent of asset management firms in the U.S. — she says colleges should scrutinize who’s represented and who’s not.

“There’s no reason for this in the 21st century,” she said.

For his part, Sharpton describes Amherst College’s response to his initial data request as “insulting.”

“No details,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”

Sharpton says he intends to continue his fight — through elected officials and alumni — to force Amherst and other colleges to be more transparent.