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Divinity School Faculty Calls on Bacow, Harvard Management Company to Divest From Private Prisons

The Harvard Divinity School is the first Harvard school whose faculty have taken an official position on divestment from private prisons.
The Harvard Divinity School is the first Harvard school whose faculty have taken an official position on divestment from private prisons. By Joshua A. Ng
By Kevin A. Simauchi, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Divinity School faculty voted late last year to approve a statement asking University President Lawrence S. Bacow and the Harvard Management Company to divest Harvard’s holdings in the private prison industry, Divinity School Acting Dean David F. Holland announced Wednesday.

Holland’s announcement comes three months after HDS faculty officially voted to send the following statement to Bacow and officials in charge of the University’s endowment.

“The Faculty of Divinity ask President Bacow and the HMC to divest the endowment’s financial holdings from carceral corporations that constitute the prison-industrial complex,” the statement reads.

HDS student activists urged faculty to adopt an official stance on prison divestment in a letter to the school's faculty in October 2020.

“Harvard’s investment in prisons is unconscionable,” the activists’ letter reads. “We request that HDS demonstrate its commitment to anti-racist, anti-xenophobic, anti-colonialist, anti-transphobic, anti-homophobic, anti-misogynist work by placing a vote to officially endorse divestment on the agenda for the faculty meeting on Monday, November 2, 2020.”

The HDS faculty did not vote on the student activists’ request in their November meeting, but the vote eventually took place on Dec. 7. Holland wrote in a letter to organizers following the vote that the Faculty Council would review how it can work to influence University and HMC officials on adopting a divestment measure.

“Faculty Council asked me, as the acting dean, to begin a process of exploring among faculty and with the central administration the possibility of such structural improvements within the HMC,” Holland wrote. “I have begun that process immediately.”

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton confirmed that Harvard is aware of the HDS faculty vote, but declined to comment further. Divinity School spokesperson Michael P. Naughton declined to elaborate on Wednesday’s announcement.

Bacow has long held the position that pushing for divestment — whether from fossil fuels or from private prisons — is not an appropriate way to advocate for social change.

“The University should not use the endowment...to achieve political ends or particular policy ends,” he said in 2018. “There are other ways that the University tries to influence public policy through our scholarship, through our research, but we don’t think that the endowment is an appropriate way to do that.”

Four Divinity School students behind the campaign to push for a faculty vote — Eboni R. Nash, Melissa A. Cedillo, Azani A. Creeks, and Sarah B. Kissel — wrote in a joint statement Thursday that they hope the HDS announcement motivates other Harvard schools to adopt similar measures.

“We anticipate that, following HDS’s lead, other Schools within Harvard will publicly support divestment as well, creating institutional momentum necessary to advance the effort all the way to the interior circles of Harvard’s financial management,” the statement reads. “We look forward to continuing our work with students, alumni, community members, faculty, and administration to reduce harm perpetuated by the institution as it continues to profit from legacies of slavery and injustice.”

The Divinity School vote marks the first time a Harvard school’s faculty has taken an official stance on private prison divestment, though the faculty of several schools — including the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — have urged the University to divest from fossil fuels. A Crimson survey of the FAS in February found that 74 percent of respondents agreed that Harvard should divest from companies tied to private prisons, including 50 percent of respondents who “strongly agree.”

—Staff writer Kevin A. Simauchi can be reached at kevin.simauchi@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Simauchi.

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