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Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign Files Suit Against University

A group of Harvard students advocating divestment from private prisons filed a lawsuit against the University today in Massachusetts state court.
A group of Harvard students advocating divestment from private prisons filed a lawsuit against the University today in Massachusetts state court. By Camille G. Caldera
By Camille G. Caldera, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign filed suit against Harvard in Massachusetts state court Wednesday over Harvard’s alleged investments in companies with ties to the prison industry.

The suit — first announced on Tuesday — names Harvard University and University President Lawrence S. Bacow; the Harvard Corporation and its Senior Fellow William F. Lee; and the Harvard Management Company as defendants, alleging they have violated Massachusetts law on two counts.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege Harvard has refused to investigate the scope of potential investments in the prison industry — representing a “violation of fiduciary duty and breach of the Harvard Charter.” In doing so, they argue, it has breached its state-mandated duty to “manage the endowment in ‘good faith and with the care that an ordinarily prudent person in a like position would exercise in a similar situation.’”

“By continuing to profit off the caging of people, Harvard violates its legal duty to consider the charitable purposes of its investments,” the complaint reads.

The complaint also alleges “untrue and misleading advertising.” The filing argues that, in order to paint itself “as a progressive institution” and attract donors and students, the University has allegedly “perpetuated misleading and false statements.”

“Harvard falsely advertises a willingness to research, engage, and act on redressing the harms that have come from its ties to slavery,” the complaint reads.

Among its statements of fact, the complaint lists a number of public statements that top Harvard officials have made on the subject of slavery. The plaintiffs allege Bacow “falsely claimed that Harvard had taken many steps in fulfilling its promise of addressing the legacy of slavery.”

“A boulder and a plaque do not address Harvard’s legacy of slavery,” the complaint read.

In the complaint, the plaintiffs asked the court to prohibit Harvard from investing in the “prison-industrial complex,” and to make “such practices” illegal.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton confirmed that the University received a copy of the complaint. In past statements, Harvard administrators have cited meetings between top administrators and prison divestment activists as evidence of a good faith effort to understand protesters' cause.

The graduate students listed as plaintiffs — Ismail A. Buffins, a student at the Divinity School; Amanda T. Chan and Anna L. Nathanson, students at the Law School; and Jarrett Drake and Citlalli Alvarez Almendariz, doctoral students in Anthropology — held a press conference at the Suffolk County Courthouse upon filing the lawsuit Wednesday morning.

The plaintiffs explained how their suit differed from a 2014 lawsuit that a group of seven Harvard student activists filed against Harvard; that lawsuit also alleged the University's investment in fossil fuels violated the school’s charter.

Chan said the 2014 suit was dismissed for lack of standing because the student plaintiffs did not have a “special position or enough of a stake in the endowment.”

“But today, we do not just stand here as students who are working in agitating for abolition and for divestment. We're standing here as donors to Harvard University,” Chan said. “So somewhere floating around in that $40.9 billion endowment is $20 of my hard-earned debt money, which means that under the charter, the University has to consider my will and has to consider its charitable purposes.”

The complaint itself notes that the Harvard Charter “requires accountability to donors surrounding the use of funds.” It also cites a ruling in a previous case in which a judge found that the individuals who contributed to a charitable organization had standing to sue.

Though noting that he donated $12.24 to the University, Drake said in remarks at the press conference that the notion of “moral standing” was more important to him than legal standing in pursuing the lawsuit.

“I'm a descendant of enslaved people in this country. My ancestors built courthouses like this. They built statehouses like the one on Beacon Street. They built universities like Harvard,” Drake said. “And as a descendant of enslaved people, it's impossible to see our system of mass imprisonment, and not see the relationships — the direct, direct relationships.”

“I'm here today, standing, literally, on the moral and the physical infrastructure that my ancestors, the ancestors of other people — enslaved people, exploited people — have built,” he added. “And that, to me, matters as much, if not more than, the legal standing.”

—Staff Writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at camille.caldera@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

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