It's Time to Lead, Not Follow

On March 31, Board of Trustees Chair Andrew J. Nussbaum ’85 sent a statement to the college community announcing a new policy to refrain from investment in the fossil fuel industry and, ultimately, phase out all existing fossil fuel investments by 2030. The announcement largely seems to be a response to an open letter from the Amherst College Divestment Coalition, a collective of eleven student groups. Published last November, the letter asks when the college would divest from the fossil fuel industry and the prison-industrial complex — and questions why it hadn’t done so already.

The Amherst College Divestment Coalition released a response to the statement calling for the college to acknowledge and act on earlier demands for divestment from the prison-industrial complex, which were notably absent from Nussbaum’s update. At the time of writing, the college has remained silent about calls for divestment from the prison-industrial complex, with the exception of a defensive response written by President Biddy Martin in December 2020 asking for more clarity on student demands.

Martin’s response reasonably left students wanting more. She argued first that “not one dollar of the college’s endowment is currently invested in private prison companies — not directly or indirectly,” but then conceded that “less than 0.01 percent of the endowment” (around $250,000) is invested indirectly in the prison industry. Martin ultimately concluded that avoiding investing in businesses that profit from private prisons may simply be an “impossible standard for any diversified investor to achieve.”

Yet avoiding harmful industry doesn’t seem to be impossible in the case of fossil fuels, with the college now expecting a complete divestment by the end of the decade. Peer institutions like Middlebury and Wesleyan had already made similar commitments before the Amherst announcement, while other institutions, like the UC system, with much larger financial resources have not only made the divestment commitment but acted on it. However, pulling away from catastrophic investments was only deemed possible after sustained student pressure, and the same will be true of divestment from the prison-industrial complex.

Perhaps the most prominent case of comparison is that of divestment from South Africa in protest of apartheid. And, as in our current divestment struggles, action by the administration and Board of Trustees only happened when ignoring the issue was simply no longer possible. While our neighbor, Hampshire College, was the first U.S. college to divest from South Africa in 1977, Amherst lagged behind, eventually following suit in 1985 — only a year before federal legislation passed banning American investment in South Africa entirely. The divestment decision by the Board of Trustees came after over a decade of student protest demanding divestment, with the college arguing during those years that it could “use its shareholder power to attempt to change the practices of companies that operated in South Africa” rather than making the complete divestment students wanted.

As with the anti-apartheid movement, current student activists demanding divestment do so in order to use the college’s financial power to help combat the issues of “institutionalized racial violence and inequality,” both of which are inherent in the American prison system. The U.S. alone has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and Black and Hispanic Americans are imprisoned at disproportionate rates. Prison labor has often been compared to modern American slavery, with a disproportionately minority population being forced to work for various corporations for little to no compensation. And the comparison to American chattel slavery is not as absurd as one might think — prisoners at Angola Prison in Louisiana, a former slave plantation which was turned into a prison after abolition, are generally paid about two cents an hour for doing the same labor that was expected of slaves prior to the Civil War and refusal to work is punished with solitary confinement.

To us editors at The Student, divesting from modern slavery doesn’t seem to be as unreasonable as the college portrays it to be, and we hope that the college is willing to boldly lead the divestment movement against prison labor as opposed to slowly joining with too-big-to-ignore divestment movements as it has in the past. If motivating the college’s investment managers is too big of a struggle alone, the college should join together with other institutions, such as our peers in the NESCAC or wealthy universities like the Ivy League, in order to convince investment managers that we are worth listening to. In the past, the college has proudly touted the difference that college divestment efforts made in ending apartheid — why not proudly work to end forced prison labor, too?

Echoing the specific demands made in the Amherst College Divestment Coalition’s response letter to the endowment announcement, the Editorial Board urges the Board of Trustees to show increased transparency and immediate commitment to divesting from and ending future investment in the prison-industrial complex. As specified by the letter, the college holds one indirect investment in a prison telecom company. Immediate divestment from this company seems to be reasonable and, more importantly, overdue. The ongoing call for transparency should and must be heard and acted upon, especially for an essential issue like this. Giving proper consideration to these calls for change and striving to meet the demands specified in the letter could be Amherst’s first step in leading the divestment movement and beyond. 

We are confident that the college has the expertise and solutions to address this collective emergency. What we need is will, direct action and a continuing dialogue. It’s time for Amherst to exert its moral leadership by divesting from the prison-industrial complex. We expect to see the college following through with its promises, and we hope to see significant action soon.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 8; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 6)