Harvard University students are attempting to push the institution to divest from the prison-industrial complex. For a center of learning that claims to value truth above all else, these students say that Harvard’s significant investment in the suffering of others delegitimizes that stated value.
According to the students, the administration — led by Harvard President Lawrence Bacow —has been resistant to resolving concerns about the endowment’s large investments in the horrors of mass incarceration.
Poring through U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings pertaining to Harvard, the campaign says that they were able to determine that at least 3 million dollars of Harvard‘s 39.2 billion dollar endowment were being funneled into the prison-industrial complex. The students stress that they know the details of only a small portion of the endowment — 425 million dollars. It’s possible that Harvard has profited even more from this oppressive industry.
According to the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign Website, through a Mid-Cap ETF Fund, the university is connected to private prison operators like Core Civic and the GEO Group. These companies own immigrant detention centers, where people are often subjected to human rights violations. Children have experienced sexual abuse, mental trauma, and many immigrants have died while in custody. Other detention centers have denied adequate health care to pregnant women.
The campaign found that Harvard was also connected to the insurance company Tokio Marine Holdings Inc., which through the bail bonds industry, prevents poor people from being able to leave jails. The site references Kalief Browder, who died by suicide after being imprisoned for three years while awaiting trial, unable to afford the $3000 bail. However, on April 19, Global News Wire reported that Tokio Marine Holdings is leaving the bail industry. Although exiting the business, they will still profit from the sale of their operations.
It’s understandable that these students would object to these connections to brutality and abuse. But for some of them, their interest in this campaign is also deeply personal.
Ashley Lipscomb, a graduate student at Harvard’s School of Theology, says that there is a juxtaposition in the pride her family feels at her prestigious education and the ways that Harvard has contributed to the suffering of families like hers. “Both my own parents have been previously incarcerated – and my mother more recently,” Lipscomb told ESSENCE. “I’m at the crossroads of these two dynamics. One, having a personal stake here [at Harvard] and wanting to make her proud. But the very place that I’m in is complicit in her incarceration,” she went on to say.
Lipscomb, whose studies explore the criminalization of Black motherhood, says that her own mother is proud of the work she’s been doing with the Harvard Divestment Campaign. “My mom sees this as a way for the voices of the incarcerated to be heard along with students who are fighting to make sure that their education is not funded by the very lives of the people that we love,” she told ESSENCE.
Recent Harvard Law graduate Anneke Dunbar-Gronke’s family has been impacted by the criminal justice system as well. As a queer, Black person they feel they must hold the institution accountable, especially when theirs and the voices of their co-organizers seem to be ignored. Dunbar-Gronke told ESSENCE that in organizing, people have to, “Tell the truth and shame the devil, right? When you tell the truth, the people who would have to do the most work to address that truth are the most resistant to hearing it.” Anneke adds that in this regard, “Harvard is no different”
The university does seem to be resistant to hearing the truth of the impact of their investments. The Crimson reported that during a meeting with six organizers, President Bacow told them that “One thing you have to understand about me is that I don’t respond to demands, I respond to reason.” Bacow expressed some level of respect for the organizers, but he remained steadfast in his non-committal to their campaign goals, pointing out that Harvard University is an anti-divestment institution.
One of the organizers, Amber Ashley James, points out that Bacow’s stance is contradictory, as Harvard has indeed divested from tobacco, apartheid South Africa, and companies complicit in Darfur genocide. Referring to their decision to divest from PetroChina for its involvement in the Darfur genocide, the Harvard Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility said that, “There are rare occasions when the very nature of a company’s business makes it inappropriate for a university to invest in the enterprise.”
However, in a statement explaining Harvard’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels, former President Drew Gilpin Faust states that Harvard must resist becoming a “political actor rather than an academic institution.” It’s disturbing to see that Harvard’s administration doesn’t see fossil fuels (which are heavily contributing to the potential mass extinction of a million species, including our own) or the prison-industrial complex (which kills and imprisons hundreds of thousands each year) to be an inappropriate investment for the university.
Although Dunbar-Gronke says that the administration feels the endowment “should not be politicized,” they point out that by funding private prisons, the endowment is already political. Dunbar-Gronke and the rest of the organizers insist that they are not needlessly attempting to incite pointless debates, but that they are attempting to move their university closer to justice.
Several of the campaign organizers ESSENCE spoke with said that they felt dismissed and hurt by Bacow’s comments, as well as the way their activism has been criticized. When asked how Harvard University’s administration plans to rebuild trust with these students, Harvard Spokesperson Jonathan Swain told ESSENCE, “President Bacow has appreciated the opportunity to meet with advocates for prison divestment and has offered to arrange a future meeting with members of Harvard’s Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, which serves as an advisory body on matters related to corporate social responsibility and the endowment.”
However, the campaign organizers are not satisfied with this invitation, as they feel it will not lead to a real solution. “Bacow’s offer needs to be contextualized with his consistent denial that Harvard’s endowment holdings are managed through investment funds that uphold and expand the prison industrial complex. The invitation is not a good faith offer to discuss divestment, but another attempt to dodge accountability to the people directly impacted by the PIC, people we are in solidarity and struggle with,” Lipscomb told ESSENCE.
To build power and raise awareness, the Harvard Divestment Campaign cultivates connections with those most at-risk for being exploited by the criminal justice system. James said that “A core feature of our campaign is that… we have advisors who are incarcerated. We refer to them to make sure our campaign is rooted and grounded in the real lives that are impacted by the system on a daily basis.” Although James admits that some might be quick to dismiss them as “a bunch of spoiled Harvard kids,” she says the campaign “tries to bring Harvard’s power to people who don’t normally benefit from it, and who aren’t normally in these conversations. We try to make sure we’re being good stewards of their wisdom.”
James also says that since the university’s administration has been “hostile” to their efforts, the campaign has shifted their focus to convincing alumni to “redirecting those dollars to organizations that are dedicated to repairing the communities that have been harmed by mass incarceration.”
Although many might dismiss campus activism as ineffectual, or even disrespectful, universities are at the forefront of many divestment and reparations movements. Both Georgetown University and the University of Glasgow have committed to providing reparations for slavery. As part of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions Movement, many others have revoked academic or financial support to Israel, in protest of the state’s occupation of Palestine. The Harvard Divestment Campaign is another example of students leading movements of social change and refusing to cede their power to bureaucratic institutions with vested interests in toxic industries.