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Princeton Private Prison Divest (PPPD) received a “disappointing response” from the University Board of Trustees to a final petition that urges the Board to state that the University will divest from private prisons, members said. 

On behalf of PPPD, Professor Wendy Belcher sent an open letter to the Board of Trustees on May 25. Belcher is an associate professor in the African American Studies and Comparative Literature departments. 

"We, the undersigned members of the Princeton University community, are approaching you the trustees of Princeton University because the consultative and governance processes for recommending divestment have broken down," the letter begins.

Micah Herskind ‘19, a spokesperson for the campaign, said that the board created the final petition after repeated unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the Council of Princeton University (CPUC) Resources Committee, which is designated to handle matters of divestment and financial morality for the University. 

The final petition submitted to the Board of Trustees contained signatures from 1,457 undergraduates, 606 graduate students, 200 faculty members, 598 alumni, and 109 community members.

“While this is a big number, I’m honestly not surprised because we’ve seen, now for the past two years, that this is something people care about and will continue to support,” Herskind said. “Honestly, it’s what I expected and it’s what the University should really continue to expect as long as they refuse to divest.”

Chair of the Board of Trustees, Kathryn Hall '80, recently responded to the open letter, emphasizing the University's policy that divestment recommendations must come from the Resources Committee.

In the letter, Hall wrote that "The Trustees have well-established policies and procedures for considering matters related to divestment that have been developed over several decades, many of which are reflected in the guidelines that inform the deliberations of the CPUC Resources Committee."

"Our procedures call for the Resources Committee to complete its assessment before any proposal for divestment is brought forward from the campus community to the Board," the letter continues. Hall's letter emphasizes that the Resources Committee is aware of and considering the issue, but the Trustees will follow their usual response considering any divestment proposal and allow the Committee to perform its work. 

Herskind explained, however, that PPPD has consistently gone to the Resources Committee and has provided "measure after measure" of campus consensus, sustained engagement, and a conflict with core University values, which are the three criteria for divestment.

“Despite us giving them all of this continued, constant feedback and information, they’ve refused to really make any strides," he said.

Belcher expressed disappointment with the response from the Board of Trustees.

"We feel that we have more than satisfied the required procedures for divestment," Belcher said. "The incredible organizing by the PPPD over the past two years and this letter signed by a quarter of the Princeton community demonstrates a never-before-seen level of campus consensus. Now, instead of being able to put this issue behind us and move on to the many other urgent issues before us, we will waste another year or two of student time proving what we already know: campus consensus."

Belcher added that children are in solitary confinement not ten miles from the University's campus. 

"... it would have cost us nothing to do something for them, but instead the University chose to stand on protocol and procedures even though lives are at stake," Belcher said.

Herskind noted that a diverse spread of campus community members had voiced their support for divestment for years to PPPD, and that throughout this time, PPPD has continued to relay this campus consensus and present research to the Resources Committee.

He listed the undergraduate referendum from two years ago, a 2017 graduate student referendum, a faculty petition last December, and continued research on the issue as examples of PPPD's organized campaign. The group also held a panel discussion of experts in the private prison industry. 

Sebastian Holt '19 attended the panel discussion held in February and signed the final petition to support PPPD's campaign for divestment.

"The fact that private prisons boast to their investors about high recidivism rates betrays the fact that the whole purpose of that system is not for the public good," Holt said. "When the goal of the organization that's performing a public service is just to make a profit, especially when doing that involves unethical, socially irresponsible, and destructive practices, that's a sign that they're not to be trusted with that public service."

In March, students held a protest for divestment, disrupting a CPUC meeting and prompting the Resources Committee to state they will continue discussing matters of divestment.

"At that point, [the Resources Committee] said that they would continue to discuss it, so now they’ve formally stated that they will continue discussions into the next year," Herskind said. "It’s fine if they want to continue to do that, but I think they’ve proven to be very unreliable. They don’t really seem to have a genuine interest in resolving this."

Herskind noted that the the University had previously announced that it is currently not invested in the concerned companies, raising questions as to why PPPD is still campaigning.

University President Christopher Eisgruber '83 had said that the University does not have direct investments in private prisons.

“I can tell you that we do not hold investments in the companies that are the current subject of this petition,” Eisgruber said at the March CPUC meeting. “There is no intention to invest in those companies.”

In an April  Letter to the Editor, Vice President and Secretary of the University Bob Durkee responded to the divestment proposal. 

"I can assure you that the President would not have made this statement without being absolutely certain that the University, in fact, has no investments of any kind, direct or indirect, in any of the 11 companies," Durkee wrote in his letter. 

Herskind explained that the University’s own articulated standard for divestment is that they also implement a negative screen against any future investments.

“That’s what the policy of divestment is for the University, so that’s what we’re asking them to do; that’s what they did in 2005 with companies doing business in Sudan, so there is precedent for this."

Belcher said that she understands the Board's concern about opening the floodgates on calls for divestment, but she believes the issue is one of significant ethical concern.

"As an Africanist, I don’t personally believe that Americans should be focused on divesting to fix everyone abroad. We need to focus on our own moral failings," she said. "But, this was a clear-cut, moral issue, at home, not abroad, without a single significant dispute against it and without any cost to the University. It was a simple matter of making official what is already the case, that we are not invested in private prisons."

Herskind said that he has little hope that the Resources Committee will take any more steps in the near future, but he said he believes that by continuing to demonstrate campus support, there will come a point when the University will not be able to ignore PPPD’s calls for divestment.

“I think we’ll continue to pursue a lot of different avenues, but for sure we’ll continue to apply pressure to the University whether it’s through protest or continued demonstrations of campus consensus,” Herskind explained. “We’re going to make it really clear that we’re not going away until the University genuinely engages with the materials that we’re giving them.”

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