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Harvard Prison Divestment Activists Walk Out of Bacow Meeting

Prison Divestment
Students involved with the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign spoke at the Harvard Law School on the first day of the group's Free-Them Week.

Members of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign walked out of a Monday meeting with University President Lawrence S. Bacow and the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility to protest the administrators’ alleged unwillingness to consider divesting from the prison industry.

Members of the CCSR would not answer when asked whether they would ever seriously weigh divesting and would not provide details about how they make such decisions, according to an HPDC press release posted on its website Tuesday. The release said HPDC organizers left the meeting after administrators declined to answer further questions about divestment.

“The committee’s refusal to state that they were open to considering divestment indicates that their offer to meet was fundamentally unserious and intended only to give the impression of good-faith negotiations to the public,” the release stated.

The CCSR is a subcommittee of the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — that advises Corporation members on matters related to social responsibility in its investment decisions.

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William F. Lee ’72., senior fellow of the Corporation, wrote in an emailed statement that members of the committee were committed to discussing divestment but that students were not.

“We came into this meeting hoping to have an open and candid discussion about the views and perspectives of everyone around the table, but unfortunately the student advocates were unwilling to have such a conversation,” Lee wrote.

He added that all five members of the CCSR were present. The committee includes University Treasurer and Harvard Management Company board chair Paul J. Finnegan ’75, California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino “Tino” Cuéllar ’93, and former Princeton University president Shirley M. Tilghman.

Members of HPDC declined to comment for this story.

In their release, HPDC organizers criticized the direction that Corporation members took during the meeting and called the gathering a publicity attempt.

“This meeting was nothing but a PR trick,” Divinity School student Ismail Buffins said in the release. “Harvard gets to look good by meeting with us. But of course, they’ll just dangle the carrot on the stick forever and ever.”

Lee wrote the HPDC organizers “demanded a yes or no answer” to whether or not the University would look into prison divestment and noted that the students would not answer questions about what the group defined as the “prison-industrial complex.”

“We told them we had read the report and we could not answer their question without a conversation so we could have a better sense of what they were seeking,” Lee wrote. “They refused and said they wanted a yes or no answer.”

In a report released earlier this month about Harvard’s investments in the prison industry, HPDC listed several companies they allege University maintains a stake in that might impact incarcerated individuals. The list includes private prison operators, like CoreCivic, and other businesses that in some way service prisons, like Amazon and Bank of America.

HPDC organizer Joanna C. Anyanwu said in the release that administrators did not consider their research findings at the meeting.

“It was troubling to see that President Bacow offered this meeting, but never intended to take the issue seriously,” Anyanwu said. “It is clear that they wanted us to seem reasonable by taking this meeting, but they never planned to really consider the implications of our research.”

Two days before the meeting with the CCSR, HPDC organizers also led a silent protest at a Harvard Law School reunion talk with Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82. Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal did not respond to a request for comment on the Saturday protest. Earlier in the week, HPDC hosted several events as part of their “Free Them Week” to promote prison divestment through a series of seminars, office hours, and workshops.

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at alexandra.chaidez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.

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