Earlier this month, NBC News published an article on the ongoing attempt by Harvard students to get their university to divest its endowment from private prisons. The video explains that though Harvard isn’t directly investing in private prisons, there is trading going on with companies that are involved with, and profit off, the prison system. The students are demanding that Harvard divest what they have invested in prison industry-adjacent companies to stop their education and degrees from funding such a cruel system.
It’s not just the prison system that American students have taken umbrage with. Currently, students at Yale University are demanding that the university divest endowment money from companies that profit off the fossil fuel industry and Puerto Rico’s debt. Students there walked out in protest of climate change. Yale doesn’t directly invest in Puerto Rican bonds, but it does have investments in fund managers that put money into them.
These schools have unfathomably large endowments. Harvard’s is nearly $40 billion, Yale has $30 billion, and so on. In contrast, schools like Ursinus have $133 million. The Ivies can afford to divest, and they can set the precedent for “ethical” investments.
Students at Yale aren’t wrong to demand these sorts of changes from their school’s administration. Calling them entitled for demanding such changes is short-sighted. Students at Harvard aren’t wrong either. The prison system profits off locking people up and stealing their labor, which arguably constitutes a form of modern slavery. I also wouldn’t feel comfortable if my institution were putting money into the private prison sector. Even if these institutions don’t immediately act to meet the students’ demands, the fact that this is being talked about to begin with is a positive first step. Endowments and their allocation are something that a lot of people don’t think about. I didn’t think about it until I met a student from Yale who was involved in the movement to stop his school from profiting off Puerto Rico and fossil fuels.
Schools should be more transparent with how the money is handled. Students shouldn’t have to investigate on their own where their tuition, and donations, and any other transaction that gives their money to their institution is going. Even if administrations “don’t know” how and where management groups put their money, they should make the knowledge of who these groups are easily accessible.
In 2013, the Harvard president said the “endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.” People’s suffering in prisons and the devastating effects of climate change aren’t just politics.