A Legacy of Oppression:
Apartheid, Private Prisons, and Student Movements For Divestment
“Political rights and freedoms are seldom if ever granted by unchallenged authority: they must be fought for and won,” the Tufts Observer reported in March of 1986 at the height of the anti-apartheid movement on campus.
The previous summer, then-Tufts President Jean Mayer attended a national conference called “Responding to Campus Disruption,” in which university administrators and legal teams strategized how to suppress student political action campaigns (The Participant: The Newsletter of Tufts Political Action Coalition, March 28, 1986). At the conference, university administrators discussed methods for controlling protests, disciplining demonstrators, and surveilling student leadership. The university’s undeniable fear of student protests clearly demonstrates the potential power that we, as students, hold at our fingertips.
Activism on university campuses has historically been a powerful driver of social and political change in the United States. Tufts’ own history is full of student political campaigns, civil disobedience, and bureaucratic negotiation. Throughout that history, generations of students have focused their efforts on influencing one of the university’s greatest sources of power: its endowment.
At over $1,980,000,000, the Tufts endowment represents an almost incomprehensible amount of money, nearly five times the annual budget of our host communities, Medford and Somerville, combined. This money is invested in various holdings which yield substantial nine-figure profits annually, nearly half of which pays fees for endowment managers themselves. Of the remaining profits, the majority is reinvested back into the endowment. Just 3.85% of the endowment was actually used towards university operating costs in 2019, meaning less than 20% of the university’s total operating costs come from the endowment. Essentially, Tufts holds a roughly 2 billion dollar nest egg and uses a small fraction of it to cover university costs, while the rest sits untouched, continuously generating more money.
Student activism at Tufts has often been motivated by the recognition of the political and economic power held in the university’s endowment. Currently, student activists are challenging the role of university endowment funds in upholding institutionalized racism and white supremacy by calling on Tufts to divest from private prisons. However, this is by no means the first divestment movement that has swept across the Tufts campus. Historically, the student body has pressured the administration to adopt progressive policies using its vast monetary resources, despite university efforts to keep institutional finances beyond student comprehension or influence.
To curb student organizing, university administrators have developed complex systems to bureaucratize activism. By issuing statements and forming committees, the administration can claim they’re on the “right side of history” without taking any concrete action. They develop intricate processes for student activists to register their complaints, demonstrating alleged openness to student input while avoiding the consequences of direct action such as protests or sit-ins.
These processes are often so drawn-out that by the time students build momentum behind their issue and start actually engaging with the administration, leaders have often graduated, leaving a new class of students to begin the whole procedure again. As students, we invest countless hours into mobilizing and educating our peers and are left with the performative crumbs of progress from an institution that finds more comfort in the ease of the status quo than the virtue of meaningful change.
The Tufts anti-apartheid movement represents one of the most fervent and enduring efforts by students to influence institutional policy. In the late 1970s, Tufts students mobilized around university divestment from corporations actively contributing to racial oppression and white minority rule in South Africa. At that time, Tufts University had an endowment of $110 million, of which some $8 million was invested in companies doing business with the South African apartheid government. Over the movement’s 12-year campaign, students faced many of the challenges that traditionally impede campus activists: the slog of bureaucracy, procedural roadblocks, and high turnover of student leadership.
The 1970s and 80s saw a wave of anti-apartheid sentiment that swept through the United States and ignited divestment movements on hundreds of college and university campuses. The Tufts movement for apartheid divestment began in 1977, when students took notice of a report in the university investment portfolio that outlined the extent of Tufts investment in companies such as IBM and Mobil Oil Corp—companies that were actively upholding racist practices in South Africa. An article in the Observer from October 1977 called on Tufts to honor its stated commitment to “be sensitive to injustice and refuse complicity in it.”
By the beginning of 1978, students had founded the Tufts Committee for South African Divestment. Between 1978 and 1979, TCSAD engaged in strategies of negotiation and protest to prompt action from the Tufts administration and Board of Trustees. A consistent pattern emerged in the university’s response to student activism: the release of written commitments and encouraging statements without any concrete action.
The Tufts administration first defended their apartheid investments by claiming that Western corporate policies had a “liberalizing effect” in South Africa (Tufts Observer, October 21, 1977). When students protested this response, the administration shifted their stance and claimed that divestment would “destroy the Tufts stock portfolio” (Tufts Observer, March 9, 1979). Even as they openly condemned the South African government, they consistently refused to reform their own financial policies.
In 1983, a group of Tufts students organized a sit-in at Ballou Hall that lasted two and a half days before the group was expelled by police in riot gear (Tufts Observer, April 26, 1985). In 1985, an even larger group of students occupied Ballou Hall. For three days, students took up residence in the building, singing songs, chanting slogans such as “apartheid kills, Tufts pays the bills,” and hanging a sign reading “Biko Hall” in a tribute to Bantu Stephen Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist who was killed in police custody. This time, law enforcement attempted to smoke out the student protesters by shutting them inside Ballou and denying them food, except for “what little could be lobbed over the heads of policemen standing guard” (Tufts Observer, April 26, 1985).
Despite the growing movement among Tufts students and the increasing amount of universities divesting from apartheid across the country, Tufts continued to hold out. In a 1986 Observer article, one student remarked, “as much as they try to downplay and underscore the role of student voice and protest, we have influenced their policies. However, token gestures aimed at appeasing student concerns will not suffice.” In the fall of 1988, student activists presented a petition signed by over 1,600 members of the Tufts community demanding immediate and complete divestment.
Finally, on February 25, 1989, Tufts University divested from all corporations associated with the apartheid government, culminating over a decade of student actions such as referenda, ballot initiatives, protests, sit-ins, and Tufts Daily and Observer articles. William Meserve, then-head of the Board of Trustees finance committee, commented, “This is a symbolic act in many ways … It nevertheless is an important statement about what we believe about equality and civil rights.”
Although divestment ultimately represented a victory for student activists, Tufts lagged behind the national divestment movement. The degree of hostility and pushback from the administration throughout the divestment campaign called into question the university’s willingness to act on their supposed commitment to “equality and civil rights.”
When Tufts divested, the national movement was at an all-time high, and it had become socially unacceptable to refuse divestment. By 1988, over 150 American universities had already divested. Tufts had the opportunity to be a national leader of the movement in the late 1970s, when students first brought the issue to the university’s attention. Instead, they waited until divestment was practically their only option.
In the 30 plus years since the apartheid movement, Tufts has seen a broad range of student activism, from the movement for dining workers’ rights to the fossil fuel divestment campaign, all of which have run into many of the same setbacks as the apartheid divestment movement. Time and time again, we’ve seen Tufts delay as long as possible, ultimately taking no action or waiting until national momentum behind the issue is so substantial as to render their action inevitable. We stand now at the precipice of yet another student movement for change.
Founded in the summer of 2020, Tufts for a Racially Equitable Endowment (TREE) is a student organization working to hold Tufts accountable to its renewed commitment to becoming an “anti-racist institution.” In under a year, TREE has built a strong coalition of students and faculty who support the divestment of endowment funds from the private prison industry. The group’s mission is based on the idea that Tufts University cannot possibly become an anti-racist institution while it still has money invested in the private prison industry. The systematic incarceration of marginalized groups has become lucrative, giving corporations that profit from private prisons a financial incentive to increase the number of detainees and the length of their detention.
Tufts University currently holds investments in a private prison corporation, and students are working to push the university administration to align its anti-racist statements with anti-racist action through a policy of divestment. In the fall of 2020, the student body passed a referendum for private prison divestment, which passed with 88% of the vote and the highest voter turnout of any special election in Tufts’ history. Furthermore, on March 14 of this year, TCU Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling on Tufts to divest from private prison corporations. Currently, TREE has a petition with 36 faculty co-signers and is working to pass a faculty resolution in support of divestment. Similar to the apartheid divestment movement, the prison divestment movement will only continue to grow at Tufts and across the country.
Already in 2021, several big banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, have committed to ending their ties with the prison industry, and the federal government recently passed an executive order to terminate Department of Justice contracts with private prison facilities. Furthermore, universities across the country, including Columbia University and the UC system, have already divested. As the prison divestment movement grows on campuses and across the nation, Tufts finds itself in the same position as in 1977, 1989, and countless times before and since. While the movement for prison divestment is strong, it is still young and offers the university the chance to rewrite the narrative.
Too often, the Tufts administration avoids taking action in response to student movements until inaction becomes publicly embarrassing. As Tufts students noted about apartheid investment in January of 1978, “not only do we help build and support an unjust economic system, we also reap the benefits derived from it.” The same holds true today with Tufts’ decision to remain invested in private prisons. Although it might be difficult, Tufts has a moral obligation to put its values before financial gain. By divesting now, Tufts can demonstrate that its commitment to becoming an anti-racist institution is not just relegated to vaguely worded emails, committees, and press statements. Private prison divestment is an opportunity to continue the legacy of anti-apartheid student activism by recognizing—and starting to dismantle—the entrenched systems of racism and white supremacy within our own institution.
For more information about the Tufts prison divestment movement, please visit the TREE website: