The Board of Trustees at the Ivy League giant, Columbia University, voted this past Monday to divest from private, for-profit prisons.
According to reports, Columbia held approximately 220,000 shares in a company called G4S, the world’s largest private security firm, and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the country. This means that even future monies from the University’s roughly $8 Billion endowment will be barred from investment in private prison companies. In essence, the University has made a clear, political statement about their prior support for private prisons, showing that they are not willing to continue to subsidize this country’s dependence on mass incarceration.
This action was prompted by the University’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing(ACSRI) and students who protested via sit-ins, teach-ins, and other public displays of concern for the University’s involvement and support for private prisons. After the ACSRI recommended that Columbia divest from private prisons in March, it seemed that no real movement would occur. In response, students in the Columbia Prison Divest (CPD) group initiated several weeks of engagement to put pressure on the board of trustees.
“We are here today because an educational institution should not invest in racist, classist, systems or criminalization and incarceration,” CPD core organizer Asha Rosa, CC ’17, said during the sit-in. “It’s now time for President Bollinger to act, for President Bollinger to bring this issue to the Board of Trustees.”
Just a few months later, the Board of Trustees had this to say about their decision, “This action occurs within the larger, ongoing discussion of the issue of mass incarceration that concerns citizens from across the ideological spectrum,” Columbia trustees said in a statement. “We are proud that many Columbia faculty and students will continue their scholarly examination and civic engagement of the underlying social issues that have led to and result from mass incarceration.”
This action sets a precedent regarding how universities in this country align themselves with private corporations. When those business firms are harmful, violent, and exploitative of certain racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual groups, these schools should seriously consider what their financial support for these companies means to students, staff, and alumni. This week, Columbia made a very powerful statement about private prisons. Now is time for a wait-and-see approach as other Ivy Leagues and institutions of higher education consider making the same decision.
Jenn M. Jackson is the Editorial Assistant for The Black Youth Project. She is also the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Water Cooler Convos, a politics, news, and culture webmag for bourgie Black nerds. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at jennmjackson.com.