Columbia Prison Divest presented a proposal for the second time to the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing on Tuesday, but CPD members said that the months leading up to the meeting were fraught with miscommunication and disorganization on behalf of ACSRI.
This week’s meeting took place more than a month after the date the groups initially set—a delay caused by ACSRI’s fluctuating membership and the departure of its chair and coordinator over the summer.
“There was no person for us to communicate with for a long time, no chair. There was no way of engaging with them at all,” said one of the student presenters Dunni Oduyemi, CC ’16 and editor in chief of The Eye. “They didn’t exist as far as we were concerned.”
CPD has been active since early this year in pushing for the University to divest from private prison and securities companies. According to the group, Columbia owns around $8 million in shares of private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America and $2 million in shares of security contractor G4S. The students obtained this information from a breakdown of how 10 percent of the University endowment is invested.
Moving forward, an ACSRI subcommittee on prison divestment will meet separately to discuss CPD’s proposal and plan an upcoming panel discussion on the issue, an ACSRI statement sent to Spectator on Thursday said.
ACSRI committed to forming a permanent subcommittee on fossil fuels in May after it voted to reject Barnard-Columbia Divest’s proposal to eliminate fossil fuel investments from the Columbia endowment.
CPD members described a frustrating experience communicating with ACSRI over the past several months. After CPD presented to the committee in April, they set an Oct. 6 date for a second meeting.
Activists said they repeatedly contacted ACSRI over the summer and in the beginning of this semester, but the committee did not respond until Sept. 29—a week before the second meeting date. The response from ACSRI told students that their meeting was postponed indefinitely because the committee had not finalized its membership.
ACSRI coordinator Ursula Bollini and chair Jack McGourty have both left their positions, and a comparison of the April meeting minutes with the current roster reveals that four of the 13-person committee remained the same.
“We had to both present everything we presented in our first presentation and attempt to respond to as many of the questions we were asked as possible. It was frustrating because we felt we’d worked very hard on this,” another CPD presenter Jesse Ferrell, CC ’16, said. “It’s frustrating to feel that all of the work that we did for them last semester had to be redone because it’s basically a new committee.”
ACSRI now has a new coordinator, Associate Director for Finance Communications and SRI Katherine Chung, but it still lacks a chairperson who serves on the committee. The ACSRI statement said that University President Lee Bollinger “is working to identify an appropriate chair for the committee.”
Chung was not available for an interview.
CPD members said that they’re also frustrated with ACSRI dropping the ball on a panel discussion on prison divestment, which Ferrell said was originally scheduled to take place in mid-October. In April, ACSRI had asked CPD for names of potential panelists, but the committee did not follow up at the time, Ferrell said.
“That’s a little bit difficult for us moving forward because we reached out to professors, we reached out to academics in the field—some of them as far away as Berkeley, California,” Ferrell said. “It’s difficult to change the date then of when that panel was supposed to be.”
The ACSRI statement confirmed that it is planning a panel on prison divestment, but a specific date is still not set.
“Before settling on the panelists, the Committee had wanted to be informed by the presentation which was made last night,” the statement said, referring to Tuesday’s meeting.
In addition to the delays in scheduling the presentation and the panel, CPD members said they were also told that they could not view documents detailing the University’s investments they were promised by the committee in April.
“That list of investments we were told we were going to get, we’ve now been told that we can’t have. Instead, Katherine Chung confirmed for us that Columbia is still invested in Corrections Corporation of America and G4S. We don’t understand why that inconsistency happened,” Ferrell said.
ACSRI’s frustrations aren’t new—former BCD member Ryan Elivo, CC ’15, said that the group’s last meeting with them “was wrought with confusion, misunderstanding, and miscommunication.”
Elivo said that the committee had interpreted BCD’s presentation as its proposal, whereas BCD was under the impression that the group would be creating a proposal after their presentation.
“We figured, the whole idea was that we would be creating a proposal with them,” he said. “That’s what we thought it would be, because if they have a subcommittee on fossil fuel divestment, then what are they doing?”
In May, ACSRI ultimately rejected BCD’s proposal that the University divest from fossil fuel companies, saying it did not fit ACSRI’s criteria for divestment.
BCD leader Iliana Salazar-Dodge, CC ’15, said the group has not communicated with ACSRI this semester, but will be meeting with University President Lee Bollinger about fossil fuel divestment in the coming weeks.
“We have spent so much time on that process, a whole school year basically, and it was not a fruitful process and has a lot of issues,” Salazar-Dodge said about dealing with ACSRI.
Bollinger, in a statement on the committee’s website, said, “I am pleased that a standing subcommittee of ACSRI has been formed to address fossil fuels, and I look forward to reviewing the work that is done on this topic.”
Salazar-Dodge, however, remains unconvinced.
“It was kind of like a new process for them and for us, and it took a lot of time, and in the end, nothing came out of it, so we’re not looking to work with them anymore,” she said.
For now, CPD members remain disheartened by the miscommunication and wasted time they said they encountered when dealing with ACSRI.
“We’ve had faith in this system as a way to bring our concerns forward at this school, and we haven’t seen that happen in this process,” Ferrell said. “It feels like we’re doing a lot of work without seeing any results. It feels like we’re doing a lot of work without them taking us seriously as people who they are working with.”
“It’s frustrating because part of what we tried to emphasize to them is that divestment is really urgent,” Oduyemi said. “Even just in the past month, between when we were supposed to present and we actually presented, there have been multiple, multiple allegations of human rights violations at Corrections Corporation of America, G4S, and GEO Group facilities.”
“In the time that they wasted and were not responsive to us, these are real conditions that people are living in, and that’s what we’re concerned with,” she said.