Last week, President Roth committed to endorse prison divestment following a student sit in at his office. The sit in called for divestment from the fossil fuel industry, the private prison industry, and companies that profit off the Israeli occupation. The students released negotiated demands calling specifically for an immediate commitment to prison divestment on Thursday afternoon and decided to leave the office after Roth committed to these demands on Friday afternoon.
The sit-in was carefully orchestrated by student groups involved in the newly formed Coalition for Divestment and Transparency, including Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Wes Divest, and Ujaama. As individual entities, these groups have engaged in extensive campus activism in the past. SJP passed a WSA resolution nearly a year ago to divest the WSA’s endowment from the occupation but received no response from administration. Similarly, Wes Divest passed a WSA resolution in Fall 2013, but no administrative action followed. Wes Divest also supported the Committee for Investor Responsibility, a group with institutional ties to the administration, in their recent proposal to the Board of Trustees to divest from coal. While the proposal helped pass a Board resolution spelling out general guidelines for ethical and environmentally responsible investing, it did not yield any concrete commitment, or speak to coal divestment specifically. After recent discussions with the Investment office, it became clear that the actual ask of the proposal – coal divestment – did not, and would not, go to a vote. The bureaucratic limits had been reached. It was time for another tactic.
Prison divestment was included in the coalition despite there being no current campus campaign. Through discussions examining the intersections between divestment from fossil fuels and the Israeli occupation, it became clear that the prison industrial complex is a system that closely relates to the other divestment goals of coalition members. Given the group’s rhetoric, ignoring the prison industry didn’t seem right or possible. Ironically, a commitment to prison divestment is the coalition’s first victory.
So what on earth does divesting from prisons mean? We called for divestment from private prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO group, and G4S. Together, CCA and GEO control 75% of the private prison market, where profits are made off the infrastructure and operation of prisons. These companies are publicly traded and profit off of incarceration, as well as lobby on a federal level on behalf of the prison industry to increase demand. In other words, they lobby for mass incarceration.
President Roth agreed:we want nothing to do with these companies. Here’s where the plot thickens: around 4:30 pm on Friday, just eight hours after the coalition left his office, students involved received an email from Roth saying definitively that we have no holdings in these private prison companies. He had spoken to Anne Martin, the Chief Investments Officer, who quickly got back to him with this information assuring him that Wesleyan is not invested in any of these three companies through its 42 fund managers.
Before discussing both the importance and unprecedented nature of that quick, straightforward response, let me explain in brief how the endowment is managed, to the best of my ability given the opaque nature of the Investment Office.
About 7% of the endowment is made up of direct holdings in stocks, chosen by third party managers. About half of these holdings are reported to the Committee for Investor Responsibility, these are the only holdings any student can consistently access.
The other 93% is managed by third party fund managers, who are hired externally from Wesleyan and invest in commingled funds, funds with assets from several investors blended together. These are far less straightforward than direct holdings, the Investments Office has great disclosure from these managers, even though this information is rarely/never available to students. There are 40 or so managers, many who specialize in specific asset areas (ie real estate, mature companies, start ups, oil and gas, etc.)
In my 2+ years of working on the fossil fuel divestment campaign, we’ve been forced to guess what percentage of our endowment is invested in fossil fuels and had essentially given up on transparency. Martin’s quick response that we are certainly not invested in any private prison companies teaches us three things:
1. In response to pressure, transparency is accessible. Students can and should have greater access to information about the endowment.
2. The Wesleyan Investment Office already abides by an ethical (although ambiguous) code of investment conduct. The recent resolution passed by the Board of Trustees to consider ethical and environmental factors while investing was merely a step taken to codify principles and practices that already existed.
3. The Investment Office does not consider student opinion unless they are forced to, and will relentlessly aim to be apolitical.
The fact that Martin knew so quickly that we are certainly not invested in private prisons proves that greater transparency of the endowment is not some enigmatic, unattainable idea for Wesleyan. Given the complexity of the Investment Office, this 6-hour definitive response proves that clear lines of communication can happen, fast. When faced with direct action, such as the forceful student occupation of President Roth’s office, suddenly this information is accessible . We must keep fighting for transparency.
If investments are externally managed and oftentimes traded in commingled funds, to be certain that we are not invested in private prison companies such as CCA, GEO and G4S means that this was once an intentional decision. It was most likely not coincidental but rather a calculated order given to or coming from external managers to step around such investments. This means the investment office had already made the ethical choice to do this. This means the investment office believes in considering ethical investments. This is a huge step for divestment movements on campus.
The debate about whether or not we should use divestment as a tactic is not quite as relevant if we truly have no investments in private prison companies. Withholding investments in private prison industry indicates that those responsible for our investments don’t need to be convinced that investments should be ethical. Albeit quietly, the investment office is already employing similar tactics to divestment, but avoiding the title in order to remain apolitical. The task is no longer to convince the Investment office of the importance of socially responsible investments but rather to demonstrate the immorality of the fossil fuel industry and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Similar to tobacco (another industry we do not currently invest in), there is no current movement on campus dedicated to prison divestment. While students clearly discuss the oppressive nature of the prison system (packed Social Death panels, 1,000 students at the Black Lives Matter march, etc.) no student group or campaign had advocated for divestment. Roth’s quick compliance with prison divestment makes sense in that it is an easier process than divesting from fossil fuels entails because it targets 3 companies rather than 200. However, divesting from the companies that profit off Israeli occupation in Palestine also targets a smaller handful of companies, but was quickly rejected flat out by Roth. It seems that the administration’s decisions to divest from various things consistently depends on their moral compass, with little regard for student opinion.
Within two days of introducing prison divestment we got a concrete response. Although this was clearly partially due to choices already being made by the investment office, it includes a promise that we will not invest in prisons in the future. It took 11 hours, 37 people, negotiations and a handful of SJB points. After two years, WSA resolutions and formal board proposals, neither Wes Divest nor SJP have reached such success.
President Roth’s commitment to divesting from prisons highlights student power and the power of direct action. While we should not have to rely on direct non-violent action for the administration to listen to what the students define as moral and ethical investments, it now seems clearer than ever that we have no other choice. This moment shows us not only that direct action is powerful, but that the administration can and should be doing more. Last week was a success but it is certainly not enough; the fight will not stop here.
Maya McDonnell is a member of Wes, Divest! and the class of 2016.