Dedicated to Divestment | Tufts Observer
Feature

Dedicated to Divestment

Student activists propose referenda to put pressure on administration

Two student activist groups, Tufts for a Racially Equitable Endowment (TREE) and Tufts Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP), have been collectively campaigning against the oppression of BIPOC by Tufts, focusing specifically on the institution’s financial involvement with the prison-industrial complex (PIC). 

Anthony Davis-Pait, a member of both SJP and TREE, emphasized the organizations’ similar stakes: “When you can recognize the ways in which these oppressive systems exploit a lot of people within our population, you should all stand in solidarity with one another.” Ava Dimond, member of SJP, elaborated on the shared belief systems of the two organizations. “Police, prisons, and the military don’t really have a place in our community and shouldn’t be a place from which the community derives monetary or also ideological value,” she said.

TREE seeks to use divestment as a strategic tool against Tufts’ complicity in the PIC and stated in their referendum: “Do you support the Tufts Board of Trustees divesting Tufts’ endowment from corporations that profit off of the prison-industrial complex?” The PIC is a multi-billion dollar industry that is economically motivated to increase the amount of historically oppressed communities behind bars. As Anthropology Department Chair Amahl Bishara explained, mass incarceration “is rooted in centuries of racism, colonialism, and violence. It tears apart families and friends, it unmoors communities, it undermines democracy.”

According to Professor Hilary Binda, director of Tufts University Prison Initiative and myTERN (Tufts Re-entry Network), the “prison industrial complex ties together government and the legal system with corporate interests, industry, and profit.” She described the PIC as a system that “transforms incarcerated, often Black and brown, bodies into sources of profit, into bodies that consume all sorts of commodities—food, hygiene products, phone and email services—that bolster corporate profits and these bodies also often produce commodities through exploited prison labor; this carceral system thereby devours public funds that might otherwise go toward social programs, like education, housing, childcare, and others.” The Prison Policy Initiative reported that Black Americans are overrepresented in the carceral system; they make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population, despite Black Americans representing only 13 percent of the US population. 

SJP’s referendum had three main components: 1) A formal apology by the Tufts administration for sending Kevin Maguire, now-retired chief of Tufts University Police Department, on a military training trip to Israel in 2017, 2) Tufts bans TUPD from going on any military trip abroad, and 3) If anyone has attended a military training trip, they cannot be allowed to join TUPD. 

SJP has fought against the surveillance and compromised safety of Tufts’ own students of color through their End the Deadly Exchange campaign. The Deadly Exchange is the trading of arms, tactics, and ideologies between the United States and Israel through training trips. It also calls out the militarization of police in both countries. Julia, a member of SJP, said that Tufts’ involvement with the Deadly Exchange provides tools that further oppress, surveil, and harm communities of color which parallels harm that Tufts causes by investment in the PIC. On November 20, SJP and TREE discussed how more training for police “further entrenches American policing in the racial profiling and violence against Black and brown bodies that it was created in.” Policing is another strategy of racial control that the PIC uses to maintain power over BIPOC communities beyond incarceration. 

The PIC formally arose from the War on Drugs in the 1980s and 1990s, a racist campaign officially introduced by President Richard Nixon and reinforced again by the Reagan administration. Reagan’s administration enacted “tough-on-crime” legislation which resulted in an increase in incarceration as well as longer sentences. The prison and jail population in the United States has increased from 648,000 in 1983 to more than 2.3 million in 2010. To accommodate this influx, according to TREE member Kate Murphy, “corporations decided to make a profit by creating privately run facilities.” 

Now, private prisons hold 8 percent of incarcerated people, and more than 70 percent of undocumented immigrants under ICE’s custody. Davis-Pait explained that private prisons “would not exist as corporations if they did not have a massive amount of people that were being incarcerated here and overseas, and then [were] bringing them into the industrial complex.”

Binda underscored that even non-private prisons have private components; state and federal governments often contract private companies for services such as food, surveillance, telephone, and even for mental and physical health. 

TREE’s goal is to pressure Tufts to divest its holdings from companies that are connected to private prisons. TREE, which was started in July 2020, translated the momentum brought by Black Lives Matter protests and demands for justice into holding institutions of power accountable, including Tufts. 

Tufts’ endowment is approximately $2 billion and is the 58th largest college endowment in the nation as of 2019. Over email, Executive Director of Media Relations Patrick Collins commented on the university’s endowment. “Sound management of the university, including its endowment, supports Tufts’ reputation as a well-respected and rigorous academic institution with an inclusive community and a commitment to civic life,” Collins said.

Grace Abe, a leader in Tufts Climate Action (TCA) and a member of TREE, pushes for Tufts to acknowledge its hypocrisy. “Tufts talks a lot about being civically engaged, being a leader and building a better future,” she said. “And they can’t do any of that if they’re actively profiting off of prisons and climate change through fossil fuels.” 

Junior Gabe Reyes, a member of TREE, emphasized the urgency for Tufts to use its economic power as a tool to combat injustice, rather than remain complicit. They spoke about how current investment signals support for a system that profits off of the harm and deaths of BIPOC communities: “By taking away economic investments, you disallow capitalism from profiting off the exploitation of Black and brown bodies, and you are taking away the economic stimulus.” 

Organizers find Tufts divesting to be essential because it can set a standard of justice for other powerful institutions. Reyes said, “There’s significance of divestment as setting a precedent, and it’s a commitment to being anti-racist.” Mabel Pence, a member of TREE and SJP, found it inexcusable that Tufts has any amount invested in the PIC. They said that divestment “would show that [Tufts] can take accountability for the unethical investments that they have and refuse to be complicit in a system that is so exploitative, unjust, and racist.”

“Tufts divesting won’t change [the prison-industrial complex],” added Pence. “It will be more of Tufts making a statement that this is not okay.”

Tufts’ investments are not publicly available, and their structure is often complicated to understand. Temple Miller-Hodgkin, a member of TREE and TCA, criticized this measure as a deliberate tactic to make the university’s finances less accessible. “This might be just a quirk of the institutional system, but as we’ve learned, not many things are quirks with institutional systems,” said Miller-Hodgkin. “A lot of that is built into the way that institutions run to make it alienating to people.”

Through correspondence with Tufts’ Executive Vice President of Operations Mike Howard, TREE found that Tufts currently has $72,000 invested in the PIC. While these investments comprise less than 1 percent of the total endowment, TREE members believe divestment would still be a significant action against the PIC. Investment and divestment of money act as a statement of values, and investment in private prisons and corporations connected to prisons makes Tufts and Tufts students, many of whom pay tuition to Tufts, complicit in the PIC. 

“It’s profound and significant,” said Reyes, “That $72,000 is contributing to the salaries [of those] who are actively brutalizing BIPOC, it’s contributing to the transportation from jails to institutions, it allows for the literal maintenance of prisons…so that $72,000 works in a lot of ways to continue that oppression.” 

In planning its PIC divestment campaign, TREE has looked to past divestment movements. During the South African apartheid divestment movement in the ’70s and ’80s, students across the country pressured their universities and other institutions to divest from corporations that were active in South Africa. There was an active South African apartheid divestment movement at Tufts, which was eventually successful in 1989.

Professor Binda was part of the South African divestment movement as a college student at Brown University, which she said had similar goals to PIC divestment movements. “Apartheid and the American criminal justice system are really not that different,” said Binda, “and they create very similar effects by building and maintaining barriers and ensuring that structural racism endures.”

SJP has also led past divestment campaigns; a 2017 Senate resolution calling on Tufts to divest from Israeli apartheid passed, but the administration did not comply with the demands, which were to divest from Elbit Systems, Northrop Gunman, G4S, and Hewlett Packard. The resolution generated controversy as it took place just before Passover, and anti-resolution organizers were worried that many students were away from campus. However, pro-resolution organizers denied that they deliberately planned the referendum in proximity to a Jewish holiday, and pointed out that students not on campus were allowed to testify. President Monaco released a statement expressing concern about the resolution’s timing and cited the 2014 Board of Trustees finding that “divestment was not compatible with the university’s current manner of investing.”

TREE is only the most recent organization at Tufts to advocate against Tufts’ investment in the PIC. In 2015, divestment efforts were led by the Tufts Prison Divestment Coalition, which was made up of five student organizations, including SJP. The coalition formed in recognition of the intersectionality of divestment and targeted three of the PIC-complicit corporations that TREE is targeting now: Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic), GEO Group, and G4S, three of the most powerful PIC corporations. However, the coalition dissolved when most of the students leading it graduated.

Other organizers at higher education institutions have also fought for divestment from private prisons. In 2015, Columbia University became the first college in the United States to divest from private prison companies. In February 2020, Harvard student organizers fought against prison investment by filing a lawsuit against their institution; they noted that Harvard’s support in the PIC contradicts its commitment to address its legacy of slavery.

Tufts’ endowment is invested using three different types of funds: some investments are directly managed by the university, third party managers control separately managed funds, and other portions of the endowment are held in commingled funds. Collins explained that this endowment structure is not unique to Tufts: “Similar to other major university endowments, nearly all of these investments are held in commingled funds […] managed by third parties.” Most of the $72,000 invested in the PIC is held in commingled funds; the divestment process, if successful, would entail directing fund managers not to invest in certain corporations found to be complicit in harm.

However, the structure of commingled funds makes divestment difficult because Tufts technically has no direct input on what corporations they are invested in. Collins said, “Due to their structure, commingled funds are not customizable; Tufts is unable to dictate which securities are held in these pools.”

Fund managers will often consider the other institutions whose investments they control, and may not comply with the university’s requests. The administration has previously used this as a reason why they will not divest; in 2015, former Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell told the Tufts Daily that “it would be very difficult to assure that in any point in time we have none of our assets in those companies” and that requesting divestment from certain companies may “limit the range and types of investments Tufts can make and impact the performance of the endowment portfolio.”

TREE’s referendum’s scope also expanded its focus beyond corporations that directly run and manage private prisons to include “all corporations that use prison labor, capitalize on fundamental goods and services in prisons, construct prison facilities, and operate private prisons, contributing to the disproportionate policing and incarceration of BIPOC, queer, disabled, and poor people.” Although these corporations may not directly run private prisons, this language ensures that the divestment request is for all institutions contributing to the PIC.

If passed, the TREE and SJP referenda will amplify pressure on the administration, which student activists hope will lead to administrative action. Davis-Pait said, “the goal of both of our campaigns is to get the university to comply with our demands. With tangible numbers to show that the student body is in support of our referend[a], that’ll be very influential.”

TCU Vice President Grant Gebetsberger commented on the use of a referendum in TREE’s goal for divestment: “I think that TREE made a smart choice in pursuing a referendum which allowed the entire student body to weigh in on private prison divestment.” He added, “This creates an even more powerful call for change than a Senate Resolution could.”

The referendum results will be released as soon as hearings from the Elections Commission (ECOM) conclude. ECOM, a branch of student government, is responsible for conducting and overseeing the logistics of all elections, for both candidates and referenda, and ensuring that they are run fairly and legitimately. ECOM historian Mark Lannigan said that there has been at least one complaint filed by a student concerning the November 24 referenda, and as of December 7, the commission is in a process of review. 

Moving forward, TREE may follow a similar path as that of TCA, a fossil fuel divestment advocacy group. TCA was founded in 2012, and after years of protests and advocacy, successfully initiated the creation of a Responsible Investment Advisory Group (RIAG), which formed in January 2020. These groups are made up of trustees, faculty, administrators, and students. Each RIAG focuses only on one issue of divestment––in this case, fossil fuel corporations and their impact on global climate change. 

The fossil fuel divestment RIAG has been meeting to discuss the impact of Tufts’ investments over the past several months; the report they release will communicate their findings and dictate the university’s plans. The report has been released by the committee, but will not be made public until it is approved at the next meeting of the Board of Trustees in February. They may decide to fully divest funds from fossil fuels, partially divest, or not to pursue fossil fuel divestment at all. TREE is still considering whether requesting a RIAG will be their next step, or whether they will pursue divestment from the PIC through other means.

Davis-Pait emphasized that SJP and TREE’s work does not begin or end with divestment. “Divesting Tufts’ endowment from the prison-industrial complex is only a very small part in achieving actual liberation from institutions of oppression.” He added, “There’s a lot of ways that these conversations continue on, even outside of the realm of the endowment and divestment.”

When thinking about Tufts’ future, Professor Bishara pushes to envision a society “rooted in values of prison abolition,” described as “a society where people can count on having quality health care, food, and schools, where people can be safe, where they can fulfill their dreams and imagine a good future for themselves, their families, and their friends.”