Student and faculty activists have spent time and energy advocating for Columbia to cut financial ties with companies involved with private prisons or the the fossil fuel industry.
On Wednesday, some of those activists got closer to a victory when the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing recommended to the board of trustees that the University divest from companies involved with the operation of private prisons. But what do we mean when we talk about divestment?
According to Fossil Free, an international organization that advocates for divestment from fossil fuels, divestment is simply the opposite of investment. Countless American organizations—including universities, religious organizations, and retirement funds—invest money, which can be in the form of stocks, bonds, or other types of investments, in a wide range of companies to generate income, according to Fossil Free. An organization might decide to divest from companies that it deems morally corrupt or unethical.
There are also often financial reasons for a company to divest. For example, a company might sell off a subsidiary to focus on a different part of its operation.
This year marks the 37th anniversary of a successful divestment campaign against Apartheid South Africa. Since then, students have urged Columbia to divest its shares in more than 250 corporations.
In March 2000, the University board of trustees chartered ACSRI to help the trustees address prominent issues related to endowment management.
Beginning with its first divestment request in 2000—a proposal to divest from corporations that export weapons to Israel—ACSRI has played a vital role in advising the Trustees in handling divestment campaigns.
These divestment campaigns come at a time when the University is in one of its strongest financial positions ever, as Columbia again received a AAA credit rating—the highest possible—from Standard & Poor's.
In November, Richard Paul Richman professor of law Jeffrey Gordon became the chair of ACSRI. This semester, student divestment activist groups have had a large presence on campus.
Barnard Columbia Divest for Climate Justice is a coalition of Columbia students and faculty that advocates for the University to divest from companies in the fossil fuel industries, according to its website.
Todd Gitlin, a professor and chair of the Ph.D. program at the Journalism School, wrote a letter addressed to University President Lee Bollinger asking the University administration and Trustees to consider divestment. The letter has since received over 200 signatures, according to Gitlin.
In addition to the University's ethical imperative to divest, Gitlin cited a potential financial reason, noting that fossil fuel companies represent what are known as stranded assets, which are worth less than they seem because they are becoming obsolete.
"When you own shares of fossil fuel companies, you're betting on the world failing to stop destruction," Gitlin said. "Does the University want to be in a position of casting its resources in favor of a vote to destroy the world? I don't think so."
"I don't just think Columbia should divest. I think Columbia will divest from fossil fuel companies," earth and environmental sciences professor Adam Sobel, who signed the letter, said. "It's going to happen in a lot of situations. It's just a matter of time."
In May 2014, ACSRI voted against BCD's proposal to divest from publicly traded oil, coal, and gas companies. BCD's request failed to meet two of the three criteria required for ACSRI recommendation for divestment—namely, that there is institutional consensus on the issue, that the merits of dispute lie clearly on one side, and that divestment is the most appropriate option moving forward. The committee was not persuaded that divestment would be a stronger tool than engagement with company management.
Since then, the campaign has been fueled by support from students and faculty alike.
"We're very hopeful that we'll get a positive decision by the end of the semester," Michael Greenberg, CC '16 and a member of BCD, said. "If that doesn't happen, we won't give up. We will continue our campaign next year even stronger and more resolute, and we will use even harder-hitting tactics."
To most students involved with divestment campaigns, the issue is not merely grounded in Columbia's investment situation, according to Dunni Oduyemi, CC '16, a leader of Columbia Prison Divest and the former editor in chief of The Eye.
"Across the world, in poor communities for undocumented people, for Palestinians living under Israeli apartheid, all are being affected by private prison companies who really only want to maximize profit and reify existing social hierarchies," Oduyemi said.
Columbia Prison Divest, which started in February 2014, is a coalition of students who have called for divestment from the $10 million that Columbia has invested in major companies in the private security industry, including companies like Corrections Corporation of America, G4S, and the GEO Group, Inc.
The self-identified "radical" campaign also links Columbia's investment in private prison companies to Columbia's complicity in an alleged American "police state," the gentrification of Harlem, and violence toward black people at the hands of police, Oduyemi said.
After the University Senate's Student Affairs Committee's recent vote to support divestment from the private prison industry and ACSRI's recommendation on Wednesday to do the same, CPD is looking forward to meeting with President Bollinger later in the month.
"He's very invested in his image as a champion of civil rights, someone who cares about race and racial inequalities. Whether or not that's sincere, I don't know," Oduyemi said.
The ultimate decision whether to divest will be made by the board of trustees.
While divestment groups have been met with broad student endorsement, many faculty members maintain that divestment may not be the most sensible way to generate campus activism.
Among those faculty is Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute, who is wary of a university divesting from an entire industry instead of looking at individual companies' practices.
According to Michael Gerrard, CC '72, professor at the Law School, and the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, the most important thing is to get sound governmental policies in place, which involves Columbia support for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, congressional, and presidential efforts.
"It's a weak signal compared to governmental policy," Gerrard said of divestment. "Divestment is helpful, and it's an additional lever, but it's nowhere near as strong."
Nevertheless, after Wednesday's major step for CPD, other campus groups, including BCD, will undoubtedly continue their fights for divestment.
"When large universities that are widely respected take uncompromising stances like divesting from fossil fuels, that really draws a very large line in the sand about what is socially and morally acceptable and what is not," Greenberg said.
Aaron Fisher contributed reporting.
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