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Harvard Students Sue University for Investing in Private Prisons

— February 20, 2020

The plaintiffs, who’ve all donated to Harvard, say their charitable giving entitles them to a say in how the university’s endowment is used.

Harvard is facing a lawsuit filed by students who want the university to stop investing in private prisons.

According to The Hill, the complaint was filed by a group of five students. In tandem with the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, they’re demanding the university pull the $40 billion it’s invested in companies which profit from the private prison industry.

Harvard, adds The Hill, says its investments are meant to counter the lasting, inter-generational effects of slavery. But the plaintiffs claim that Harvard has no such interest and is instead reaping the rewards of mass incarceration.

“Instead of helping to dismantle the entanglement of profiteering, government interests, and the system of human caging, Harvard makes profit off it,” the lawsuit states. “The money funds the opulent lifestyles of Harvard’s top administrators who are prison profiteers.”

The lawsuit, filed in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County, isn’t the first of its kind. The Hill notes that Harvard faced a similar suit in 2014, filed by students who wanted the university to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

Harvard students have also challenged the university’s investment in fossil fuels. Image via Alfred Palmer/United States Farm Security Administration or Office of War Information. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

However, the suit was quickly dismissed. In their opinion, the presiding judge said that the students hadn’t demonstrated “that they have been accorded a personal right in the management of Harvard’s endowment that is individual to them or distinct from the student body or public at large.”

And that failure has been taken to heart.

Xavier Alvarez, a PhD student in anthropology, said he and the other plaintiffs aren’t just students—they’ve all donated money to Harvard. They believe their personal contributions to the school’s endowment gives them more say in how its funds are used and invested.

“Our standing is based on the premise that we’re donors to the university,” Alvarez said. “This is one way to hold Harvard’s feet to the fire.”

A spokesperson for Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow told NBC News last year that Bacow “appreciated the opportunity to meet with advocates for prison divestment.”

But Bacow hasn’t taken steps to divest. NBC notes that the university has previously suggested that social change should arise from education and teaching—not from changes to Harvard’s multi-billion dollar endowment.

Bacow also said that Harvard’s only invested about $18,000 in prison-related businesses and industries. However, claims the real figure is closer to $3 million, based off a close inspection of the university’s endowment-related expenditures, holdings and investments.

Despite Bacow’s position, Harvard may buckle. NBC recalls that Harvard has divested under pressure before—from the tobacco industry, apartheid South Africa and war-torn parts of Sudan.


Harvard students file lawsuit demanding school pull investments from prisons

Harvard students sue school for divestment from companies profiting off prison industry

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