Updated, Feb. 11, 3 a.m.
A group of students hand-delivered a letter to University President Lee Bollinger’s office on Monday afternoon, calling on the administration to end Columbia’s investment in the Corrections Corporation of America and the British multinational security firm G4S.
The group, known as Columbia Prison Divest, had been planning the letter since the middle of last semester. The group asked Bollinger to respond to its letter by Feb. 7 and to have a meeting with the group by Feb. 14. The students wish to discuss how these investments are affecting people of color and LGBTQ, international, and working-class communities, which have higher rates of incarceration. The protest was first reported on Bwog and a video of the protest was posted on TALK, the Intercultural Resource Center’s student-run publication.
The students said they found out in June 2013 that Columbia owned 230,432 shares in CCA, worth about $8 million, and that it was also invested in G4S, which has received accusations of allowing torture in its privately managed South African prisons. These numbers are derived from the 10 percent of the University’s budget that is publicly available, according to the group.
“In some ways, we are here because other people are locked up,” Asha Ransby-Sporn, CC ’16 and a student behind the letter, said. “There are people back home, there are people uptown, who are policed and incarcerated in ways that Columbia students are not.”
“Asking Columbia to divest is a way to hold the University accountable,” Ransby-Sporn added.
The letter, which was signed “Students Invested in our Community,” asked the University to immediately divest from all shares it holds in CCA and G4S. Additionally, it requested that Columbia’s fund manager reach out to 36 firms that Columbia has a stake in—including Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and Morgan Stanley—to ask them to also withdraw their investments in these companies. Finally, the letter demanded that Columbia make its present and future financial portfolio more transparent.
“We are disturbed by investment practices that we see as destructive to the communities we represent and which blatantly contradict Columbia’s commitment to the well-being of its underrepresented and marginalized students,” the letter read.
Feride Eralp, CC ’14, said that Columbia’s supposed investment in these companies was paradoxical.
“I’m wondering if I’m directly profiting from high-security prisons or checkpoints,” Eralp added.
“I chose to direct financial resources to the school,” Gabriela Pelsinger, CC ’15 and a member of the group, said. “So I am accountable to what this institution does with this money.”
This isn’t the first student-run effort calling on the University to withdraw its holdings in certain companies. Last semester, Barnard Columbia Divest—which objected to the University’s investments in the fossil fuel industry—met with the University’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing after a divestment ballot initiative passed by an overwhelming majority.
“I think that lately there’s been a feeling among the student population that the administration and its bureaucracy needs to be more transparent,” Imani Brown, CC ’14, said. “There are ways that the school acts as though students don’t need to be involved in these kinds of decision-making processes.”
The University did not respond to requests for comment.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that TALK was the student-run publication of the International Student Resource Center. It is the InterCultural Resource Center. Additionally, due to an editing error, a previous version of this story said that making the University's financials more transparent was the group's main priority. Spectator regrets the error.