On March 27, Princeton Private Prison Divest staged a walkout at the Council of the Princeton University Community meeting to show support for divestment from private prisons. The Board commends the University Resources Committee’s refusal to back down in the face of intense political pressure and urges the committee to provide no commitment to divest from private prisons. We echo our editorial from April 21, 2016, in which we rejected private prison divestment, and we contend that private prisons do not meet the threshold of community consensus and moral unacceptability required to justify divestment.
Princeton University is an educational institution, not a political advocacy organization. Decisions made by the University must further educational goals, not political ends. The Princeton University Investment Company has a core mission to make investments that will produce high and reliable returns on the endowment, which in turn provide the University with the financial stability necessary to spend money on financial aid, new facilities, and other educational necessities.
Many corporations sell items that are highly objectionable to some members of the community. Environmentalists might object to oil drilling companies and vegetarians to meat-packing companies. Still, it would be false to construe an investment in, for example, ExxonMobil or Tyson Foods, as a moral stance in favor of oil or meat consumption. It simply reflects PRINCO’s understanding that investment in these firms will yield higher or more reliable returns than alternative investments. PRINCO makes investments based on financial considerations, and the decision to invest is made independent of the University.
Nevertheless, there have been two instances during which the University has decided to divest following public pressure from the University community; once related to South Africa during apartheid in 1987, and once related to Sudan during the Darfur humanitarian crisis in 2006.
Advocates of private prison divestment are calling on the University to divest for a third time to target private prisons, citing campus consensus and conflict with University core values. While a referendum calling for divestment from private prisons received a commanding majority in April, this referendum did not meet the Undergraduate Student Government’s participation threshold, meaning that less than one third of the undergraduate student body voted on the issue. Advocates of divestment have not shown that there is campus consensus on the issue. They have merely shown that a significant minority of students agrees with them. Even if, hypothetically, it is accepted that the vast majority of students support a divestment proposal, the Board believes that student support is not the primary metric that should be used to decide on the merits of a divestment proposal. Rather, the University’s institutional interests, such as in academic freedom, political neutrality, and core University values, should be the primary considerations.
While it is undeniable that many students and faculty are passionately opposed to private prisons and that there are strong arguments to be made against this practice, it does not follow that investment in private prisons contradicts core University values. The two previous divestments targeted political practices that inherently contradict core moral values; racially driven discrimination and disenfranchisement in South Africa, and genocide in Sudan. In contrast, Princeton Private Prison Divest calls for the University to target the contracting of certain government services to private contractors.
PPPD has highlighted a number of reasons why the contracting of prison services is inefficient as currently organized; it costs more, leads to higher rates of recidivism, and engenders numerous safety concerns. The Board believes that there is a substantial difference between an inherently immoral practice, such as racial discrimination and genocide, and public policies that can have negative, even disastrous, effects, but are not inherently immoral, such as the contracting of certain government services. Racial discrimination and genocide are reprehensible by definition. The contracting of public services is problematic only in cases when it does not work, and the Resources Committee is not positioned to make the political determination of whether and when the disadvantages of private contracting outweigh its benefits.
In a letter published in The Daily Princetonian, PPPD showcased the partisan nature of their complaint when they condemned the University’s investments for supporting “the blatantly racist agenda of the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.” Any partisan gain deriving from Princeton investments is purely coincidental, since PRINCO’s purpose is solely to invest in companies that provide the highest and most reliable returns. The letter, by implying that investments ought to align against the policies of President Trump and Attorney General Sessions, implies that University resources ought to be used to engage in partisan activity.
The University’s strength as an educational institution lies not only in its ability to educate the nation’s brightest minds in state-of-the art facilities, but also in its role as a forum for debate, a pillar of the marketplace of ideas. To maintain its prestige and integrity, the University as an institution must remain impartial and allow students and professors to freely exchange ideas.
Many professors hold views that are outside the mainstream of undergraduate and graduate student political thought. To subject their viewpoints to a referendum, and call on the University as an institution to condemn their views, would cause irreparable harm to academic freedom. This is why divestment should be used sparingly and only in the most egregious of circumstances. Not only is there no evidence of universal outrage over private prison divestment, but the Resources Committee also cannot take a stand without politicizing the University. It appears that the protests and sit-ins will continue as the Resources Committee deliberates, and the Board hopes that the Resources Committee will refuse to bow to public pressure and remain steadfast in its commitment to institutional neutrality.
Cydney Kim ’17, Ashley Reed ’18, and William Pugh ’20 abstained from the writing of this editorial.
The Editorial Board is an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of The Daily Princetonian. The Board answers only to its Co-Chairs, the Opinion Editor, and the Editor-in-Chief. It can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.