Contemporary Divestment Campaigns

Contemporary student activists, who witnessed and learned from the success of the Apartheid divestment movement, are using similar techniques to persuade universities to divest from fossil fuels and the Prison Industrial Complex. The year 2020 was just the beginning of this movement, but some universities and colleges have already taken the first steps in this long fight for justice. 

Student organizers at Columbia University created the Columbia Student Divest campaign in 2014. The campaign struggled for years to gain enough student, faculty, and administration support to transform the small group into a campus-wide movement. Over time, the strength and robustness of the student pressure proved to the administration that this was not an issue that would die as the original student activists began to graduate. Instead, the movement thrived through leadership changes, all while continuing to pressure the Columbia administration into action. In April 2015, Columbia’s president agreed to start a dialogue with the activists on the 40th anniversary of Columbia’s divestment from Apartheid. Once the president began to get on board with the movement, the Board of Trustee was more willing to listen to the movements’ demands. By the summer of 2015, the Trustees of Columbia decided to fully “divest from private prison companies and would refrain from investing in such companies again.” It divested its $8 million in stock holdings in CoreCivic, one of the largest private prison companies in the country. Columbia is one of the first universities in the United States to fully make this commitment. 

Following Columbia’s lead, and amidst intense student pressure, the UC system divested $30 million in the private prison industry. In this case, although the student pressure was a needed component to bring this issue to the attention of the financial team, the “UC system has a ‘sustainable investment’ strategy” that highlighted the decreasing utility in investing in industries that support the PIC and fossil fuels. Kate Moser, a spokesperson for the UC endowment investment team, said, “we evaluate investment opportunities from a risk perspective, including whether social, governance, environmental and other issues make an asset too risky for a long-term investor.” Overall, this was a massive move by one of the largest public university systems in the country that demonstrates the strength of the national prison divestment movement and the power of individual school organizers. 

Harvard University also has a powerful foundation for their prison divestment movement. A press release in July 2020 by the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign sums up their current positions very nicely:

“In February, student organizers with the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign filed suit in Massachusetts state court alleging that Harvard University has violated its own Charter by refusing to hear in good faith the demands of the students, who became donors to the University before filing. According to the student plaintiffs, the Harvard Charter requires that all the University endowment’s disposings must be “according to the will of the donors. The plaintiffs also allege that the University falsely advertised itself as an institution which cares about addressing and reckoning with its legacy of slavery. The plaintiffs allege that the University cares not for its legacy of slavery because it invests in the prison-industrial complex, which is a slave trade itself.”

The campaign is currently using legal means via Harvard’s own school charter to fight for prison divestment in the endowment. Additionally, the Harvard PIC divestment campaign is attempting to make this issue transcend just the undergraduate campus and involve Harvard’s numerous graduate schools in the issue. Fighting for divestment through the law and uniting all Harvard students from around the Boston area are two very innovative methods to garner support for the divestment movement. 

Finally, the Georgetown University Board of Trustees announced in October 2017 that they will “continue to avoid direct investment in private prisons via an online press release … in accordance with the university’s Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) policy.” This came as a result of continued student pressure on the Board that “appealed to Georgetown’s values as a Jesuit institution, arguing that investing in private prisons sustain systematic oppression and degradation of minorities and undermines the university’s core principles.” 

There are numerous other contemporary examples of student campaigns to divest from the PIC. This is a growing movement that is only intensifying as the US continues to refuse to acknowledge the severity of the injustices in the criminal justice system and its racist past. Many of these campaigns used the lessons learned from the earlier Apartheid divestment movements to build a national movement.