Carceral Complicity: Princeton’s Failure to Divest

This week, in an effort close to my heart, the Princeton Private Prison Divest (PPPD) campaign reached a critical juncture. Over the past year and a half, students, faculty, and staff from a coalition of on-campus groups have organized to pressure the University to remove all endowment funds from private corporations that directly profit from human detention.

This initiative has included an undergraduate student referendum, a graduate student referendum, a faculty petition, and a public panel with experts on for-profit incarceration. At each step, community support, demonstrated through votes, signatures, and event attendance, has been clear. Behind closed doors, organizers have met with administrators to press their case. In sharp contrast to the community view, bureaucratic consideration of the proposal has been sluggish and lukewarm.

The tension between the community and administrators’ views came to a climax Monday. At a public meeting, members of a committee appointed to ensure social responsible investments of University wealth announced their rejection of PPPD’s proposal.

The rejection announcement was disheartening not solely for what it implied about the University’s priorities but also in its exposure of dire problems within the committee’s appraisal process of divestment proposals. Discussion within the meeting made clear that a variety of intentionally vague standards for presentation and approval have been deployed in order to immobilize valid arguments.

Rather than directly admitting Princeton’s complicity in the inhumanity of privatized detention, administrators have chosen to dodge direct ethical appraisal of the insertion of the profit motive into incarceration. Deflections based on pedantic dissection of student writing, hesitation to condemn private carceral services, and philosophical musings on the broad merits of divestment must be called out for what they are: a failure by the administration to honor benchmarks for evaluation of divestment proposals that they themselves created.

As a consequence of inaction, Princeton once again cowers in the face of oppression.

CPUC & the Resources Committee: Inaction in the Face of Injustice

Princeton’s main administrative voice on ethical investment of the University endowment is the Resources Committee. The committee operates as part of the Council of the University Community (CPUC), a public forum held 6 times per academic year where representatives from across the University come together to discuss matters of import. Members of the public are given the opportunity to raise concerns.

CPUC was founded to address tensions in the wake of mass student outrage against US involvement in the Vietnam War. More specifically, student activists pushed the University to disassociate itself from the Institute for Defense Analyses, which maintained (and still does) a branch in the town of Princeton. Despite the founding of CPUC, student efforts proved unsuccessful.

In later years, a number of other connections between the University and controversial national and global issues have come before CPUC. Many of activists’ demands have centered on uses of Princeton’s wealth. Under CPUC’s organization, the Resources Committee is intended to act as the primary reviewing authority for such requests. But efforts have always been slow, half-hearted, and less than progressive.

The chief example of the Resources Committee’s lackluster track record is its stance on apartheid South Africa. In 1969, mass student outcry pressured the University to not directly hold stock in companies primarily operating in South Africa. Bigger protests, with the aim of removing university dollars from multinationals complicit within the administration of apartheid, broke out in the 70s. Thirty-two consecutive days of picketing through rain and snow in 1978 culminated in an occupation of Nassau Hall, the University’s main administrative building. Timed to coincide with a meeting of the University Trustees, the sit-in brought increased student attention and national media coverage.

Many great memories can be found online from the 1978 protests. Perhaps none is more powerful than a speech by Kevin “Billy” Gover (who went on to become the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is now the Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian) in which he linked his experiences organizing for divestment at Princeton to his grandmother’s experiences living on a reservation. (The video can be found at this link.)

Gover’s speech drove home how the fight for justice through divestment is not a fight about a specific issue. While the specific practices of apartheid were unspeakably cruel, the struggle against this practice was just one front in a larger struggle for ingrained institutions of North American power to reexamine and come to terms with—both rhetorically but more crucially through action—their continued complicity in systems of oppression.

Students rally for divestment from apartheid South Africa in 1978 on Princeton’s Cannon Green. Source: Princeton University’s Mudd Manuscript Library Blog

In response to the protests of 1978, Princeton’s Trustees implemented explicit guidelines, which have been subsequently further enhanced, on the role of the Resources Committee. Simultaneously, the 1969 implementation of “selective disassociation” from companies primarily operating in South Africa served as an excuse for the University to avoid bolder steps in 1978. As the Trustees argued in their response to the protesters: “The University can be a powerful agency for social change; but it exerts its power primarily through individuals and ideas.”

This view of Princeton as an apolitical actor has stood in the eyes of the administration over the past four decades. In 1986, after 155 colleges and universities had already done so, Princeton removed $300,000 of direct investment in Ferro Corporation, an American firm that maintained racially segregated South African factories. Similarly, the University trailed behind countless civil institutions who had divested from Darfur when it finally in 2006 examined its financial holdings of five companies operating in the Sudanese region. As has been the case with most questions of the University’s conduct, Princeton’s alignment of its ethics with its actions has historically been late and lacking.

Evaluating Private Prison Divestment

Monday’s CPUC meeting began with an announcement by Princeton’s President Christopher Eisgruber that the University does not directly hold stock in any of the 11 companies contained in PPPD’s proposal. While such a revelation deserves commendation, it is nonetheless a shallow barrier for compliance given that only 10% of the Princeton endowment is in US equities. No mention was made of the composition of hedge fund investments, which comprise 25% of the endowment.

A true divestment effort would result in the University instructing all externally managed investment instruments in which it is involved to pull their assets from the 11 companies identified by PPPD. Such a move is not without precedent. In 2014, Scopia Capital Management, DSM North America, and Amica Mutual Insurance bowed to pressure from civil rights nonprofit Color of Change and removed $60 million in investments from Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group, the two largest players in the private corrections industry.

It is possible for Princeton administrators to order hedge funds and other investment instruments held as part of the University endowment to take a similar step. This could take the form of an official letter to each secondary fund manager requiring withdrawal of assets in the 11 companies listed by PPPD or else face the withdrawal of Princeton’s capital. (A minimum threshold for portfolio composition could be inserted so as to exclude index funds from this requirement.) While such instruction and follow-up would admittedly require more effort than direct divestment (the step that Columbia University and University of California administrators agreed to in 2015), it is well within the capacity of the Princeton University Investment Company’s over 30 staff members.

Following Mr. Eisgruber’s announcement, chair of the Resources Committee Professor Michael Littman took to the dais to make clear that he and his co-committee members had decided to reject PPPD’s proposal. This decision was based on their belief that, “the proposal, in its current form, did not meet the high bar to recommend action.”

After Mr. Littman, a cohort of PPPD representatives took to the stage to announce that they rejected Mr. Eisgruber’s announcement as too little and the Resources Committee’s actions as “a charade”. I am inclined to agree.

PPPD’s statement was followed by a mass walkout of the meeting by their supporters to a teach-in held at a nearby location. But a few critical souls stayed behind in the CPUC forum. A lengthy discussion between Mr. Eisgruber, Mr. Littman, other committee members, and interested attendees followed. The discussion, much of which was videotaped by the Princeton Progressive campus publication, shed light on the carousel of deflections that the Resources Committee and the broader University administration has relied upon in rejecting PPPD’s proposal.

Committee chair Littman emphasized the quality of PPPD’s submitted proposal in his opening remarks. Later, when pushed on why he is more broadly hesitant to defund private prisons, he voiced a belief that perhaps private prisons are more humane than publicly overseen carceral institutions. And finally, he cited a 2015 editorial by Bill Bowen, the Princeton University President from 1972 to 1988 who oversaw the refusal to take a bold stand on apartheid, on reasons to be weary of divestment because of its potential to have a chilling effect on freedom of academic scholarship.

All three hesitations seem inappropriate when considered in this specific context.

The official University-published guidelines for the Resources Committee lists four bases upon which proposals should be considered:

  1. “If there is considerable, thoughtful, and sustained campus interest in an issue involving the actions of a company or companies in the University’s investment portfolio…”
  2. “…whether or not there was a central University value clearly at stake.”
  3. “…whether it was possible for the University community to reach a consensus on how the University should respond to the situation.”
  4. “…to assess the extent to which the actions of a specific company in our portfolio represented a direct and serious contradiction of the central value that was involved here.”

In criticizing the quality of PPPD’s physical proposal, Mr. Littman highlighted that he viewed the writing as too one-sided. Nowhere within these four guidelines, however, is any mention made of the quality or neutrality of writing within the submission. Such a requirements would be pedantic in nature. And so is Mr. Littman’s contention, echoed inexplicably by other committee members. In taking aim at the way in which information was presented to him by a student group specifically aimed at ending the University’s direct complicity in mass incarceration, Mr. Littman focuses attention on a non issue. (In assessing this claim, I encourage readers to take a look at PPPD’s proposal. It is a high-quality, comprehensive, impressive product.)

Mr. Littman and others’ ambivalence on the question of whether for-profit incarceration is a net-bad is also inappropriate. Indeed, within PPPD’s own proposal, no less than 11 government or peer-reviewed publications are summarized. Mr. Littman mentioned discussions of Louisiana’s private prisons that he had read which led him to believe that private prisons may be more humane than public institutions. Perhaps they are slightly more cost efficient. But the current Louisiana contract only is for incarcerated individuals without disciplinary charges or medical conditions. As such, on paper the deal may look good, yet in practice the costs of providing services for populations in need is absorbed by the state. This is to make no mention of the appalling abuses documented in Louisiana’s private prisons. Reporter Shane Bauer’s 4-month undercover stint as a guard in a Corrections Corporation of America facility in Winnfield, Louisiana resulted in a terrifying, award-winning exposé on the culture of abuse that seeps through all aspects of private prison operation. Over the years, a number of incidents have confirmed Bauer’s findings.

Finally, the question of whether divestment is ever appropriate for a University is a potentially valid discussion. However, the Princeton Trustees’ creation of the Resources Committee answered this question within the context of the University. The mission of the Resources Committee is not to ponder whether divestment is an appropriate practice, but rather to consider in what cases divestment is appropriate. It is simply unacceptable that administrators have re-steered the central official discussion towards philosophical questions of what it means to divest. This is an issue implicitly addressed by the governing documents of the Resources Committee, which set out the criteria for approval of a divestment proposal.

Conclusion

Private prisons is not the first question of divestment to come before the CPUC Resources Committee in recent memory. During the past ten years, fossil fuels and the Israeli occupation of Palestine have also attracted considerable support from across the Princeton community only to be shut down by the Resources Committee’s institutionalization of discontent. Promises of further review of revised proposals and continued discussions abound. Yet not one divestment proposal has made it through the committee to the Board of Trustees.

Resources Committee approval of a divestment initiative would not result in University financial action. Rather, the proposal would then be put before the Trustees. As such, it is inappropriate that a seemingly unsurpassable standard of proposal has been erected within CPUC.

The question of private prison divestment brings in companies that benefit from incarceration of all kind. In addition to private prisons, youth homes, detention centers for undocumented economic migrants, and halfway houses come into play.

The logic of profit does not align with the logic of humane custody in situations where there is no option of exit. Those caged by the state cannot opt out or select a different provider. The University must become attuned to this reality, one which is backed up by extensive research across disciplines. To continue to benefit from the minimization of care at the behest of the maximization of earnings is reprehensible. It is well past time for Princeton to act.


To learn more about Princeton Private Prison Divest, visit: https://www.princetondivest.com/.