The students of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign launched their petition to divest Harvard’s endowment from prisons and companies that significantly profit from the prison-industrial complex this past month. I, along with HPDC, call upon University President Lawrence S. Bacow for more transparency in the endowment’s investments and to withdraw its investments in the prison-industrial complex. We have gathered over 3,000 signatures, with many more to come. Yet although many among the Harvard student body are excited for the prospect of Harvard to stop profiting off of prisons and its close affiliates, Bacow does not support it.
Based on the tiny bit of the endowment that is disclosed to the public under Securities and Exchange Commission requirements, we know that the endowment is invested in private prison operators CoreCivic and the GEO Group, Taser seller Axon, and insurance company Tokio Marine Holdings Inc. But we know nothing of the vast majority of the endowment that is undisclosed. That is a secret kept well-guarded by Bacow and the rest of Harvard Management Company.
Bacow claims that the endowment cannot be used to enact social change. He argued Harvard is already a leader in responsible investment, and that he receives many too divestment requests to comply with all of them. And above all, Bacow told us, the endowment is apolitical and that is the University’s policy.
But the systematic capture, caging, and oppression of black and brown people is not apolitical. CoreCivic officials made the purposeful decision to deny life-saving medical treatment to a Guatemalan toddler, for example. The decision to keep mentally-ill prisoners in solitary confinement and drive them to suicide is also a purposeful one. The decision to tase schoolchildren is a purposeful decision. These are all purposeful decisions that the endowment profits off of.
HMC’s website states that the endowment could divest from industries that are “deeply repugnant and ethically unjustifiable.” How can anyone claim that alleged mistreatment at CoreCivic detentions centers, which includes the report that the Guatemalan toddler was denied life-saving medical treatment, not meet this standard? How many more black and brown people must GEO Group and CoreCivic kill before Harvard recognizes it as repugnant and unjustifiable?
Harvard already politicized the endowment when it divested the endowment from South African apartheid, enabling genocide in Darfur, and the manufacture of tobacco products. In the 1989-1990 President’s Report, then-University President Derek C. Bok highlighted concerns about tobacco as a public health crisis as reason for tobacco divestment. The fact that Harvard has historically divested from “repugnant” and “unjustifiable” situations makes Bacow’s broken-record slogan regarding the apolitical nature of the endowment moot.
If public health is the concern for the endowment, Bacow should read up on how prisons and detention centers are a health crisis for the souls who are trapped inside. Just last month, there was an outbreak of chicken pox at a Denver detention center. Guards at this GEO Group-run prison mocked the ICE prisoners for their “fail[ed]” attempted suicides. The argument that tobacco divestment was for public health but a dismissal of the health of prisoners is telling of whose health exactly Harvard cares about.
Harvard prides itself on being the first university to sign onto United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment in 2014. Harvard cannot simultaneously call itself a leader for publicly embracing responsible investing principles only then to backtrack and claim responsible investment is not a within the domain of endowment management. Such a backtrack illustrates that signing onto PRI was simply window dressing and not a genuine promise to lead the world’s endowments in justified investing.
In fact, if Harvard sincerely meant its commitment to be a leader for other universities in responsible investment, it would have divested from prisons before Columbia University did in 2015.
As a Harvard Law Student, I cringe at the thought of locked-up asylum seekers used as the reason why Harvard can fund student organization events, libraries, art museums, student life, and free food at lunch lectures. The claim that the endowment is “apolitical” is intellectually dishonest. There are lives at stake in the prisons and the companies that we invest in. We students are asking Bacow to divest from profiting off of the caging of humans, primarily poor black and brown people. Bacow must be more transparent with Harvard’s holdings and stop funding our educations with money scraped off the backs of U.S. prisoners.
Amanda Chan is a second-year student at Harvard Law School.