Student activists who pushed Georgetown University to commit not to invest in private prison companies now say the university is unfairly taking the credit for their activism in an Oct. 5 news release announcing the new policy.
The university announced the policy after a committee of the university’s board of directors accepted a March recommendation of the Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility, which makes recommendations to the board on ethical investment policies. Under the new policy, the university will encourage its external investment managers to avoid investments in private prison companies.
What the university’s announcement mentioned only briefly, however, was how the proposal came to the CISR in the first place: It was submitted by Eman Abdelfadeel (COL ’17), Sophie Bauerschmidt Sweeney (COL ’17) and Salma Khamis (SFS ’17), and accompanied by a three-month campaign launched last December by the student group Georgetown University Forming a Radically Ethical Endowment.
Abdelfadeel said the university’s statement took credit for the change while only briefly alluding to student involvement.
“Understating the fact that this was a call from students is indicative of a trend of the administration being unresponsive to the demands of the wider community and then taking credit for the work once it has become socially and/or financially appropriate for them to do the right things,” Abdelfadeel said.
The release made one reference to the students’ involvement, saying the CISR “reviewed a student proposal that included a request that the university divest from the private prison industry.”
“After finding investing in the private prison industry to be inconsistent with Georgetown’s commitment to socially responsible investing – which is reflected in the new SRI policy, CISR submitted a recommendation to the board that supported this strategy,” the release said.
A discussion of the activism that led up to the decision is lacking from the campus conversation, according to Christian Morris (COL ’19), a student organizer for GU F.R.E.E.
“I feel like it was worked for,” Morris said. “I want to bring it back to the fact that student activism, student pressure and conversations are happening. I haven’t heard anything about the demonstrations we did last year, or the events that we disrupted, or the proposal we submitted through Georgetown’s bureaucratic loopholes.”
A university spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
This is not the first time students have criticized the university for taking credit for activists’ efforts.
Lily Ryan (COL ’18), a member of the workers’ rights student activist group Georgetown Solidarity Committee, said the administration failed to acknowledge GSC’s role in a 2016 dispute with the university over its licensing contract with Nike.
Students associated with the GSC staged a 35-hour sit-in last December in the office of University President John J. DeGioia, demanding the university cut its contract with Nike unless the company agreed to allow independent workers’ rights inspections of its factories. After hours of negotiations between students and university administrators, the university ultimately agreed to the students’ demands and allowed the contract to expire at the end of the year. The parties struck a new contract in August which included an agreement to allow regular, independent inspections of Nike supplier factories.
A university news release announcing the new contract in August does not mention GSC, the sit-in or student activism. One line in the eighth paragraph of the release notes the university “engaged with faculty and student leaders” while negotiating the contract.
Ryan said the framing of the university’s statement disregards the pivotal role of student activists in pressuring the university to negotiate the new contract.
“What troubles me is that, as usual, there is no mention of the extensive efforts that students put into pushing Georgetown into a decision,” Ryan wrote in an email to The Hoya. “While I can’t speak for all students or student activists on campus, I don’t think we do it for the glamor or for the recognition by university administrators but I think it erases the work done by students, in the case of GU F.R.E.E., it was work done in large part by queer students and students of color.”
Ryan said the way the university represents student activism is important for reasons other than conferring credit.
“The stories we tell about victories and failures are important and it can be hard to tell stories about student activism when the activists are left out of the narrative,” Ryan wrote. “I knew when the statement was released about private prisons that it had taken time and effort on the part of a committed group of students, but I know that so many students don’t know, and that can be detrimental to promoting a culture in which students can engage in activism.”
As for the future, Abdelfadeel noted the work of divestment advocates is unfinished. The original group’s 2016 proposal to the CISR was more broad than the one enacted by the board of directors this month, also including a request for divestment from companies invested in private prisons, rather than only private prisons themselves.
“The original proposal to the CISR proposed divestment from private prisons and the wider industry that sustains it,” Abdelfadeel said. “It would be great to see a commitment from the university regarding the wider private prison industry.”
The proposal also called on the university to divest from any companies that benefitted financially from the Israeli occupation of Palestine, a request that was rejected by the CISR.
Abdelfaleel said there are common threads in the social implications of private prisons and the occupation.
“We found common themes of state violence — black people living and dying under the United States’ white supremacy and Palestinians living and dying under Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid. Moreover, there is an overlap in companies that empower the private prison industry and the illegal occupation,” Abdelfaleel said.
GU F.R.E.E. also continues to call for greater transparency in Georgetown’s investment records and promotes general public consciousness of the university’s investment policies.
Morris, meanwhile, said he hoped that this decision would prompt the university to look at other instances of state violence and adapt its investment policies accordingly.
“I hope there is something sustaining from the divestment of prisons, not like, ‘OK, we did it; it’s done,’” Morris said. “This should only be the beginning of Georgetown’s broader divestment movement.”