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Bacow Tells Prison Divestment Group He Responds to ‘Reason,’ Not ‘Demands’

Picture of Bacow at Inauguration
University President Lawrence S. Bacow poses for a photo at his inauguration in October 2018.

Organizers from the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign met with University President Lawrence S. Bacow Thursday to present their demands for Harvard to divest its $39.2 billion endowment from companies tied to the prison industry.

“One thing you have to understand about me is that I don’t respond to demands, I respond to reason,” Bacow told six organizers from the pro-divestment organization after reiterating the University’s long-standing anti-divestment position.

During the meeting, the organizers also demanded that the University disclose any holdings Harvard currently has in companies tied to the prison industry, according to the group’s press release.

In response, Bacow “refused to commit to disclosure or divestment,” though he noted that he respected the group’s concerns, according to the press release.

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University spokesperson Paul Andrew wrote in an email Thursday that, during the meeting, Bacow said students have called for Harvard to divest from a number of industries that may be considered “offensive” to some. Bacow emphasized that the University cannot respond to every demand, Andrew said.

Harvard presidents have long maintained that the University’s endowment is not an appropriate tool for enacting social change despite persistent calls from activists, mostly recently to withdraw holdings from the fossil fuel and private prison industries.

Bacow’s statements on Thursday reflected this precedent: he reiterated the apolitical nature of the endowment and said that this policy has served the University well. Bacow added that Harvard has a responsibility to donors to generate money for research and "scholarly endeavors,” according to the press release.

University spokesperson Nate Herpich wrote in an emailed statement Thursday that the University’s position that Harvard should not use its endowment to “achieve political ends, or particular ends” remains consistent.

The University previously divested from the tobacco industry in 1990, as well as from companies in South Africa in 1986. Bacow acknowledged these instances in the Thursday meeting, calling them rare exceptions to the policy, according to Andrew.

Asked in a December interview about divestment from the fossil fuel industry, Bacow cited practical concerns that would complicate divestment and a need to work with industries in order to “bring about meaningful change” as a rationale for why Harvard should not divest its holdings from the industry.

“The endowment should not be used as a way, as an instrument of social policy,” Bacow said at the time. “I think there are far more effective ways for us to influence social policy, public policy, as well, through our research, our scholarship, through our actions and through our teaching.”

Apart from the meeting, the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign also released a petition earlier this month that calls upon Harvard to divest its holdings from companies with affiliations to the prison industry, disclose any current investments, and repair areas in Cambridge and Boston that have been “disadvantaged by the prison-industrial complex.” As of Thursday morning, the petition had garnered almost 1,500 signatures.

The group is planning to present Bacow with the petition later this semester, according to the press release.

This is not the first time students have voiced support for divestment from companies tied to the prison industry. An Undergraduate Council ballot referendum last year urging for divestment from the “prison-industrial complex” garnered 77.2 percent of the vote.

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

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