Yale Students Criticize University Prison Investments at Teach-in

Via Yale Daily News | Jingyi Cui

Yale’s Linsly-Chittenden Hall 102 was filled to the brim Saturday afternoon, as students took the stage one-by-one to criticize Yale’s investments in areas ranging from the fossil fuel industry to the debts of distressed government.

The teach-in, titled “Inside Yale’s $27,000,000,000,” featured representatives from a coalition of student organizations, including Fossil Free Yale, Yale Students for Prison Divestment, Yale Young Democratic Socialists and the Association of Native Americans at Yale. With vibrant photos and precise figures, students delved into public records of Yale’s endowment investments and argued that many of the University’s holdings are harming the environment, the criminal justice system and the Puerto Rican economy, among other areas. In addition to airing concerns about endowment investment, students urged Yale to declare the campus a sanctuary for undocumented people and to pay more taxes to support the Elm City.

“How might we as students reimagine Yale’s endowment?” Cassie Darrow ’19 said in her opening address. “Knowing that a slave trader, Philip Livingstone, endowed the first professorship at Yale and that profits made from slave labor laid the basis for endowment, how might we reimagine Yale’s endowment as a tool for reparations, for restorative justice?”

The teach-in came on the heels of a January protest, organized by local activists outside of University President Peter Salovey’s house on Hillhouse Avenue, condemning Yale’s investment in the Baupost Group, a hedge fund that holds nearly $1 billion of Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt. In December, the graduate student union Local 33 and Fossil Free Yale teamed up to deliver a petition urging the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The University has continued to stand by its investments in both areas.

Fossil Free Yale member Rachel Calnek-Sugin ’19 said that after Yale chose in 2015 to directly invest millions in a fracking company, Antero Resources, dozens of other universities followed suit, in part due to the reputation of Yale’s Chief Investment Officer David Swensen.

Since 2011, Antero Resources has committed 14 environmental violations and faced penalties totaling over $1 million, according to records from the Environment Protection Agency. In July 2013, Reuters reported that five people were injured in an explosion that month at a natural gas well site operated by Antero Resources in West Virginia.

According to Yale’s latest filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Yale held $73 million in Antero Resources and $118 million in Antero Midstream — a subsidiary company of Antero Resources — as of Sept. 30, 2017.

In an email to the News Sunday evening, Yale’s Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor said the University will not comment on its investments in Antero Resources until it verifies whether the 14 violations were signs of significant oversight on the part of the company and whether negligence was found in the explosion at the natural gas well site.

Another issue that came to the fore during the talk was Yale’s investment in the private prison industry. Yale’s most recent SEC filing also shows that, as of Sept. 30, 2017, Yale held $66 million in iShares, an exchange-traded fund operated by investment management company BlackRock. According to Yahoo Finance, BlackRock is the second biggest institutional holder of the GEO Group, the country’s biggest private prison company, and owns 11 percent of the company’s stocks. The GEO Group runs the private detention center in Aurora, Colorado that held Melecio Andazola Morales, the father of Viviana Andazola Marquez ’18, for 64 days before he was deported to Mexico in December and barred from re-entering to the U.S. for 20 years.

Although the latest SEC filing does not show any investments with the Vanguard Group — the investment management company that is the GEO Group’s biggest institutional holder, owning over 18 percent of its stocks — Yale had $345 million invested in the Vanguard International Equity Index Fund as of March 31, 2017.

Travis DeShong ’19, a member of Yale’s Students for Prison Divestment who spoke at the event, said the University’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, which makes investment recommendations to the Yale Corporation, is set to announce a formal stance on Yale’s investments in the private prison industry in March. DeShong urged the audience to step up activism efforts in the days leading up to the announcement.

“It’s pretty hypocritical for President Salovey to position himself as this hero standing against Trump and his xenophobic immigration policies, while Yale is profiting off of immigrant detention,” said Charlie Urban-Mead ’19, another member of Yale’s Students for Prison Divestment. “If this University is going to have anything like light and truth, it can’t be paid for by imprisoning people.”

Student speakers also discussed Yale’s connection to an electrical transmission line project, known as Northern Pass, that allegedly infringes upon the land of the Pessamit people, a Native American tribe.

During the event, Gabriella Blatt ’21, a member of ANAAY, said Yale never directly responded to a letter from the tribe’s leader René Simon, who urged the University to halt the project which he described as part of the history of “cultural genocide” of his people.

In a Jan. 20 press release, the University acknowledged requests by “petitioners” to intervene in the development of the transmission line, but stated that as an investor, Yale has limited control over decisions made by the company responsible for managing the land.

On Feb. 1, though, the project suffered a potentially fatal blow when the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee unanimously voted to reject a permit for the construction of the transmission line.

Brian Bink GRD ’22, the graduate and professional schools’ representative on the Yale Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, said he attended the talk to better educate himself about Yale’s endowment investments. Bink noted that Susan Wang ’18, the undergraduate representative on the ACIR, was also in the audience.

“We are very passionate about making sure that Yale is investing their endowment in a way that’s not only fiscally responsible but suits the ethics and morals of Yale,” Bink said.

Bink added that he was impressed by the number of people who came to support the speakers and their mission.

Ian Wraga DIV ’20, an attendee and member of the Yale Democratic Socialists, said that of all the topics discussed at the event, Yale’s turning a “blind eye” to the economic crises in Puerto Rico struck him the most.

“While all the turmoil was going on, they did nothing, they didn’t try to take money out of it,” Wraga said. “That was such a blatantly horror thing going on, and we are just benefiting from it.”

Advocacy group Hedge Clippers sent a letter to Salovey last October urging him to pressure the Baupost Group to forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. In response, Salovey tasked the ACIR with reassessing the holdings.

Committee chair and law professor Jonathan Macey LAW ’82 told the News in January that after months of deliberations, the ACIR decided that month that divestment “is not warranted where an investor is abiding by applicable bankruptcy procedures.”

Mary Claire Whelan ’19, a Fossil Free Yale member who attended the event, stressed that all student groups have a stake in the issue of Yale’s investments.

“Work like this so obviously needs to be coalitional,” Whelan said. “You have to support fights that are already happening, not pretend that you are somehow going to create new ones.

Yale’s endowment earned an 11.3 percent return for the year ending in June 30, 2017.

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