The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Jonathan Butler (c), a University of Missouri grad student who did a 7 day hunger strike listens during a forum speaking to students on the campus of University of Missouri – Columbia on November 9, 2015 in Columbia, Missouri. Students celebrate the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe amid allegations of racism. Credit: (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

On college campuses across the country, student protests over discrimination and racism have become common. Some have begun after racist incidents — such as when neo-Nazi symbols were scrawled on building walls at Iowa State University; a paper noose was hung from an African-American student’s door at Michigan State, and a racist manifesto was rumored to have been sent to students’ cell phones at Syracuse; among many others.

Student activists have often demanded that their schools be more inclusive and provide more resources and support for students of color.

Perhaps the most famous recent protests were at the University of Missouri in fall 2015. After several racist incidents, a group of black students issued a list of demands centered around diversifying the school and making students of color feel welcome on campus. They also asked for more funding to hire mental health professionals. One student even went on a hunger strike for a week until the university president resigned.

But student activists at Harvard University and a few other schools are taking a far more ambitious approach.

Since early 2017, students at Harvard have been pressing school administrators to sever the school’s financial ties to companies that support what they call the prison-industrial complex.

In effect, these students are seeking to change not just the culture on their campus but to use their school to change society.

Pushing to divest

In fall 2017, Harvard Ph.D. student Jarrett Drake took a class on race and incarceration in the United States. The course centered on the prison industrial complex, a term that refers to the network of businesses and companies that provide services to state and federal prisons.

Though its prison population has been shrinking for about a decade, the U.S. still has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the prison population is disproportionately made up of people of color and of people from low-income backgrounds. In 2017, black people went to prison at a rate that was nearly six times higher than white people.

“We want the university to actually think very deeply about what it means to make education sustainable in ways that don’t exploit people.”

Drake and fellow student Sam Matthew wanted to find out if Harvard’s massive endowment had financial ties to, or investments with, any of the companies supporting the prison system. It didn’t take them long to discover that their school was tied to the prison industry in some major ways.

It’s impossible to know how much Harvard is benefiting from the prison industry, because the school makes public only about 1 percent of its endowment’s investments, advocates say. Three percent is kept in cash, and the other 96 percent of the endowment, amounting to nearly $40 billion dollars, is shielded from the public. Harvard’s endowment is not only larger than the endowment of every other university in the United States but also bigger than the GDP of many states and about half the world’s nations.

But in the 1 percent of the endowment they could examine, student activists assert that $3 million is invested in companies that make at least some of their money from prisons.

Drake and Matthew presented their research at a teach-in on campus in February 2018. In response, a handful of other students from across the university decided to join the two Ph.D. students to form the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign. They have since hosted campus-wide forums to share their demands, met with administrators, and protested on and off campus.

“We want the university to actually think very deeply about what it means to make education sustainable in ways that don’t exploit people,” Drake said.

Harvard’s administration counters that only $18,000 of its endowment is invested in the prison system, which is a tiny fraction of the $3 million Drake cites. The divestment campaign’s number is so much bigger because it factors in companies that activists say contribute to every part of the prison industrial complex. That includes companies like Axon, which outfits many police departments and prisons with Tasers, and Amazon, which provides facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies.

The students want Harvard to not only be transparent about its investments but to no longer support companies that profit from prisons and to instead invest resources in educational support programs for people of color, and people who have been incarcerated and their families.

“We are merely both illustrating how their current placements of those funds lead to direct harm for black-brown oppressed people, and how investments in other locations would actually help alleviate that suffering,” Drake said.

Many of the campaign’s ideas were borrowed from past divestment movements. In the mid-1980s, anti-apartheid activists at many American colleges and universities pushed their schools to stop investing in South Africa. Students pressured the University of California system to divest more than $3 billion from companies doing business with the apartheid government.

“Money talks, and Harvard has a lot of it, Columbia has a lot of it, Chicago has a lot of it, Johns Hopkins has a lot of it,” Drake said. “So, in as much as these institutions are on their faces educational institutions, they’re also lightweight hedge funds.”

Still, universities have been reluctant to make political statements with their endowments, though there have been notable exceptions. Harvard previously divested from the tobacco industry in 1990 and partially from South African industries in 1986.

Though he’s met with campaign leaders several times, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow has maintained that the endowment is not the way to make policy or political statements.

“The university should not use the endowment … to achieve political ends or particular policy ends,” Bacow said. “There are other ways that the university tries to influence public policy through our scholarship, through our research, but we don’t think that the endowment is an appropriate way to do that.”

But Jarrett Drake believes otherwise. “I do not see the university as a vehicle that can make social change. I see the university as a vehicle that already does make social change,” he said. “And what I mean by that is, the university is already making a statement. It’s already taken a number of sides in terms of where is the endowment currently allocated? Who are the different speakers who come to campus? What are the different institutes that come to campus?”

“I think that black students, that undocumented students, will actually feel much safer if their university was not invested in systems that exploit, harm, the communities that many of the students come from.”

In February, Drake and four other students from the prison divestment campaign filed suit against Harvard and several senior administration members, including Bacow, in Massachusetts state court. The lawsuit accuses the university of violating its charter, which “requires accountability to donors surrounding the use of funds,” according to the suit. The students hope that the school will be forced to disclose more about its endowment and how much it’s benefiting from the prison system.

Two forms of protest

The recent student protests caught the attention of Robin Kelley, a professor of American history and African-American studies at UCLA. In May 2016, following the protests at Missouri, he wrote an article for the Boston Review titled “Black Study, Black Struggle” that laid out the differences between the types of activism he saw students using.

He believes that universities will never be hospitable to students of color because they aren’t post-racial spaces. So he thinks that students should carefully phrase their demands and set their expectations accordingly; the university has the same problems as society at large, and because of this, students must challenge the institution.

On one hand, students get frustrated when the university doesn’t fulfill its promise to provide students of color with a safe and supportive environment, like students at the University of Missouri. On the other hand, he says there are students — such as Jarrett Drake and activists with the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign — who are trying to use their time in school to transform society.

“There are those students that say, ‘Okay, we don’t want to belong to a university that doesn’t love us. We see the university not so much as an enemy, but certainly as a space that doesn’t have that kind of capacity. What we want is to transform society. If we can transform the university, we will do that, too.’”

When he first published his article, Kelley received a fair amount of pushback. Students and other professors were angry at him because they thought he was belittling the efforts of students of color who were focusing their demands on campus itself. Kelley says that wasn’t his intent.

“We’re going to keep creating certain safe spaces for black and brown students, requiring them to put more black and brown authors in the curriculum,” he said. “I’m not at all condemning students who don’t take that position, but trying to highlight those students who see the university not as somehow a neutral space or a transcendent space, but one that is very much part of the problem.”

“I’m not at all condemning students who don’t take that position, but trying to highlight those students who see the university not as somehow a neutral space or a transcendent space, but one that is very much part of the problem.”

A lot of what Kelley discusses in his piece is the concept of trauma. He believes that by making the conversation about adding more mental health services for students, it makes trauma an individual problem that can be solved internally. These services are certainly important, he says. But what he’s advocating for is to tend to the personal traumas, while also addressing the structural ones.

“Sometimes focusing on the personal to the exclusion of the collective, and the social to the exclusion of the structural, basically means that racism, for example, is a matter of bad behavior, bad thoughts and cultural incompetency. So we become competent, then we won’t be racist … rather than seeing that racism reproduces itself in spite of our best intentions.”

Activist Traci Wilson-Kleekamp agrees that of course you can’t detach the university from the society in which it exists. But in response to scholars like Kelley, she says that the work students do on campus to change the culture is paramount.

“I don’t think that there’s a one-size-fits-all scheme for disrupting institutional practices,” she said.

Wilson-Kleekamp helped students at Missouri brainstorm tactics and demands during the 2015 protests. She’s president of the nonprofit Race Matters Friends, which advocates for racial equity in Columbia, Missouri. The group and other activists supported the students behind the scenes. She came to Missouri as a diversity recruiter for the medical school, and now she’s teaching and studying to get her Ph.D.

She agrees with Kelley that asking for safe spaces, and for more diversity and inclusion initiatives, won’t result in systemic change. She believes that schools are sold to students as places where they will feel accepted and not have to encounter so much blatant racism in their daily lives. But that just isn’t the reality, she says.

Wilson Kleekamp says that going up against white supremacy and the institutions that support it is no small task. But she believes that disrupting the power structure at schools by making white people uncomfortable can lead to systemic change. “They’re not going to do anything while you’re negotiating with them to do the right thing by you. You have to make them miserably uncomfortable.”

The protests at Missouri led students at dozens of other schools around the country to fight against the racism they experienced on campus. Several other university presidents were pushed to resign, and professors accused of perpetuating racism left.

At Harvard, Jarrett Drake isn’t focusing on increasing campus diversity or on increasing resources for students of color. He and the other student activists are looking to make changes outside of campus. But Drake says it’s okay that some student activists focus their efforts on changing their life on campus. He says that both approaches are important and not as different as they seem.

“I think that black students, that undocumented students, will actually feel much safer if their university was not invested in systems that exploit, harm, the communities that many of the students come from,” he said.

When he was an undergrad, Drake started a group called the Yale Black Men’s Union to “provide space for black men to come together to support each other through mutual empowerment to engage with folks into the city of New Haven.”

These spaces are necessary, but he also believes that having them sometimes stops universities from doing more.

“The universities oftentimes use those groups, or use their existence, as an excuse to ignore other structural changes that need to be made.”

Hiring more black faculty and admitting more students of color is out of activists’ control, but Drake says that students don’t need the university to create spaces for them. He points out that on most campuses, students of color already do that. And at Harvard, the prison divestment campaign has endeavored to create community.

“This is the space that we’ve created,” he said. “The Harvard prison divestment campaign certainly makes me feel more welcomed on the campus. It’s giving folks the space to just be their truest, boldest, blackest, queer selves, and it’s beautiful.”

This story about student protests was produced by APM Reports and reprinted with permission.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *