Last year’s Williams Reads theme of “Confronting Climate Change” and this year’s focus on mass incarceration both engage systemic injustices that predominantly harm poor, black, brown and indigenous communities. The College’s choice of theme can be understood as an attempt to make crucial educational interventions into violent systems. This explanation is complicated by the fact that the College’s nearly $3 billion endowment continues to be invested both in fossil fuel companies and possibly private prisons.
In 2014, a fossil fuel divestment campaign at the College succeeded in demonstrating widespread support from students, faculty and staff for removing investments in industries that are killing people and the planet. Yet there continues to be no transparency around the nature of the College’s investments or the status of its impact investing commitments made in 2015. Furthermore, the College has not made any efforts to learn from or collaborate with other colleges and universities’ work on divestment or reinvestment.
The irony of the College focusing its yearly themes on climate change and the prison system while refusing to divest is aggravated by the fact that two of the largest divestment movements in the world focus on fossil fuel corporations and private prisons. In 2015, Columbia became the first institution to divest its direct investments – an estimated 220,000 shares – from private prisons, on the basis that “the business model of private prison companies creates incentives for increasing the level of incarceration.”
The last several years have also seen massive international movement for institutions to divest from fossil fuels, as well as campaigns to divest from banks that support infrastructure projects that appropriate and destroy indigenous land, such as efforts to divest from banks that are funding the Dakota Access Pipeline. Last week, PNB Paribas, the largest French bank, stated that it would no longer work with or finance the projects of companies whose “principal business” involves dealing with oil and gas from shale or tar sands.
These divestment movements do not claim that some kind of institutional “moral purity” can be achieved once every stock is sold. They aim for institutions both to move their investments out of unethical industries and to invest positively in projects that work against these crises, such as renewable energy, as well as critically evaluate the ethics of their investments more broadly. The College has remained stagnant in its efforts in all of these areas.
Where has this inertia come from? The structure of the endowment, like that of most colleges and universities, is not conducive to divestment, as there are multiple commingled funds and different managers. Yet it is confusing that the College has made no effort to build relationships with fund managers that will allow for these ethical decisions – as Barnard did, when it divested from energy companies that deny climate change in 2017 – or collaborate with other universities and colleges to open up feasible possibilities for divestment and reinvestment.
The College celebrates intellectual exploration around the issues of climate change and mass incarceration, while at the same time its nearly $3 billion endowment is invested in industries that perpetuate these crises. The Board of Trustees made its decision not to divest in 2015, and the situation has only worsened. Our federal government has pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, scrapped environmental regulation and is reinitiating a full-on “War on Drugs,” which promises to further criminalize and incarcerate black and brown communities. Now, more than ever, divestment – and reinvestment – is critical.
The next president of the College, too, should be a person with progressive values, who won’t be afraid to take a stance on these critical issues and who won’t be bound to a corporate rationale that prioritizes the College’s accumulation of wealth over the well-being of the world beyond Williams.
Alexandra Griffin ’19 is a biology and history double major from New York, N.Y. Crystal Ma ’21 is from Redmond, WA. She lives in Williams Hall. Kaira Mediratta ’21 is from New York, N.Y. She lives in Williams Hall. Rosa Kirk-Davidoff ’21 is from Albany, N.Y. She lives in Williams Hall.