News | Student Life

YIR 2013-14: Student groups advocate for divestment from fossil fuels, private prison companies

  • Cindy Ma / Senior Staff Photographer
    DIVEST | In mid-April, Columbia Prison Divest hosted an awareness week with divestment-centric events and sent a second letter to University President Lee Bollinger asking to meet with him.

Student groups have ramped up efforts this semester to pressure the University to divest from fossil fuels and private prison companies.

Still, despite sustained activism throughout this past year from Barnard Columbia Divest, which focuses on fossil fuel companies, and Columbia Prison Divest, which calls for divestment from the Corrections Corporation of America and the British multinational security firm G4S, Columbia has yet to make any concrete changes to its investments.

BCD began the year by making Columbia history as the first-ever student group to land a ballot initiative on a Columbia College ballot. During the special election for a new University senator for CC on Oct. 18, students voted on BCD’s proposal for Columbia to divest from the 200 largest fossil-fuel harvesting companies.

“Columbia loves to praise itself as being a highly sustainable institution. We have Jeffrey Sachs, the Earth Institute, and organic strawberries at Ferris. Columbia should put its money where its mouth is,” Ryan Elivo, CC ’15 and a member of BCD’s Coordinating Committee, said in October.

Though the resolution passed with 73.7 percent student approval, it didn’t have the power to make changes to the University’s investments, so its effect was limited to the pressure it put on the administration to further consider divestment.

Three BCD representatives met on Nov. 12 with the University’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, a committee that advises the University’s board of trustees, while BCD members and supporters gathered on Low Plaza to show their support.

The representatives presented research and student opinions on divestment to ACSRI, which agreed to find out how much Columbia has invested in fossil fuels and release the number to BCD. According to the student representatives, they felt the committee was relatively receptive to their cause.

“We both recognize that this is an issue we’ll be working on together for a long time,” Elivo said after the meeting.

On Feb. 3, Columbia Prison Divest joined in the activism with a hand-delivered letter to University President Lee Bollinger’s office, calling for divestment from the Corrections Corporation of America and G4S.

The letter, which group members said had been in the works since last semester, was written after students learned that Columbia owned about $8 million worth of shares in private prison companies from the University’s publicly available budget. They called on Bollinger to meet with students to discuss the effects of prison investments on various minority groups that have higher rates of incarceration.

“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 said.

The meeting never happened, and in mid-April, CPD followed up with a week of divestment-centric campus events called People, Prisons & Profits. The group partnered with other student organizations, including Students for Justice in Palestine, Radical C.U.N.T.S., and Students Against Mass Incarceration, to hold panels, teach-ins, information sessions, and organize a photo project.

That week, the group sent a second letter to Bollinger once again asking for a meeting.

“We see a fundamental contradiction between investment in incarceration and what this university stands for, because this is a matter of what is just and for whom we demand justice, because this is a direct relationship between our privilege at Columbia and the denial of human dignity elsewhere,” the letter said.

“The endowment is dealt by a semi-separate organization from the university, for the reason of return,” University President Lee Bollinger said at an undergraduate fireside chat in March. “It’s important to separate the two to avoid questions like this.”

Though Columbia has yet to divest from the fossil fuel industry or prisons, both groups have continued to meet with ACSRI, which has had private meetings about the issue throughout the semester.

The decision to divest has precedent: Stanford University announced on May 6 that it will no longer make direct investments in coal mining companies. The decision was made by the university’s board of trustees following a recommendation from Stanford’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing.

Students involved in these movements are now hoping Columbia will follow suit.

maia.bix@columbiaspectator.com  |  @MaiaClay4

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