Student organizers from the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign (HPDC) met with Harvard President Lawrence Bacow on Thursday, April 18, 2019. They sought to learn why he has not disclosed Harvard’s $39 billion endowment portfolio that includes investments in private prisons and companies that significantly profit from the prison-industrial complex. President Bacow holds “office hours” twice a semester, where he allows students to schedule 10-minute slots with him to discuss a topic of their choosing.
“President Bacow,” asked Joe Pinto, MDiv ‘20, “you’ve called for a conversation around questions of divestment, yet the way in which you’ve engaged this issue suggests that you don’t really want one — for example, we’ve heard you repeat [only] prepared talking points, and you were clearly unreceptive to arguments from your faculty at last week’s [fossil fuel] divestment forum. Our questions for you are: 1) are you listening; 2) how do we know; and 3) what have you found most persuasive so far in calls for divestment?”
“We have no direct holdings in companies that operate private prisons,” Bacow replied, in a marked pivot from the university’s previous strategy of saying only that Harvard “does not instrumentalize the endowment for particular causes” and reproaching students’ acts of civil disobedience. Since HPDC has already acknowledged, in its original petition to Bacow, the lack of direct holdings in private prisons – versus investments through index funds and holdings in companies that profit significantly from prisons – his statement all but confirmed the students’ impression that he is not listening to his community.
Bacow further indicated that Harvard’s total financial stake in the carceral system amounts to “only about $18,000.” He subsequently refused to disclose the endowment’s holdings so that his numbers could be verified. HPDC has gathered through Harvard’s SEC filings and publicly available data that, of the 1% of the endowment that is currently known, $2 million is invested in the prison-industrial complex, roughly $100,000 of which is associated with private prisons alone.
“I believe in the goodness of Harvard,” Bacow added. When a student questioned how “goodness” factors in Harvard’s recent decision not to relinquish daguerreotypes of slaves to a known descendant, he replied, “Those images belong to history.”
Today’s meeting closely follows HPDC’s disruption of a public event at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics on Thursday, April 4 at which Bacow was scheduled to speak. Following the disruption, Bacow reiterated his long-standing position that he responds to “reason, not demands.” In turn, HPDC organizers launched the campaign #2.2millionreasons that invited students, administrators, and faculty to affirm the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States as their “reason” for supporting divestment.
At a public forum on fossil fuel divestment on Thursday, April 11, Bacow then publicly said he “would be happy” to engage HPDC and faculty members on their concerns about Harvard’s investments in the prison-industrial complex. In today’s office hours, he proposed a meeting between HPDC and the Harvard Management Company, but dismissed students’ request that such a meeting happen on terms that account for and counteract the unequal playing field between Harvard and its students that has been evident in Harvard’s disciplinary posture toward peaceful student protestors.