Letter to the Editor: Disclose, Divest, Reinvest

To the Vassar Community, 

Disclose, Divest, Reinvest 

The recent state-sanctioned murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others at the hands of police officers have prompted a global response. The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), and policing as an extension, plagues every crevice of American society. We are all implicated, and this includes the higher education system. The Vassar student body, and specifically Black and Indigenous Vassar students, are directly affected by the PIC. Vassar is not only complicit, but also further perpetuates harm against communities of color and its BIPOC students, staff, and faculty. Through Vassar’s lack of financial transparency, its decision on how to spend and invest its money, and its hiring and admission restrictions for people with criminal histories, Vassar makes clear its reliance on and support of the PIC. 

Following the ‘War on Drugs’ and other politically charged decisions, the U.S. prison population has increased tenfold. Now, the U.S. —with only 5% of the world’s population— houses almost 25% of the world’s prisoners. Due to more restrictive policies, more people are being convicted, serving longer sentences, and recidivism rates are higher than ever. Additionally, prison privatization has dramatically increased, quickly becoming a multi-billion dollar industry. In 2016 alone, the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) brought in over 250 million dollars, all while paying the inmates housed in their prisons wages only 32 cents to a dollar on the hour. The PIC has slowly become a modern day system to promote slave labor, that is again built upon the backs of minority men and women. These changes directly correlate to mass incarceration and have radically affected the larger BIPOC community, contributing to a rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States where millions have permanently become labeled as second class citizens. The PIC and everything that is associated with it is an active participant in the formation of a modern-day slave labor system. Vassar cannot continue, in good conscience, to invest in this system which oppresses, exploits, and marginalizes so many communities of color. 

Vassar has a history of ignoring or opposing student-led movements, particularly surrounding divestment. The Student Coalition Against Apartheid was a student anti-apartheid group at Vassar College that campaigned to get the school to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. In February 1986 the Student Coalition Against Apartheid staged a sit-in in President Smith’s office, claiming that Vassar, instead of divesting, had increased the amount of stock it held in apartheid-supportive companies. After a five-year campaign organized across multiple classes of student environmental leaders by SEED, for the first time, the demand to divest Vassar’s endowment from fossil fuels reached the board’s Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC) for formal consideration. After one day of deliberations at the November Board of Trustees meeting, TIRC voted unanimously against the recommendation to divest. During the pandemic, Vassar showed its disapproval of student movements with its lackluster response to the No Fail Policy efforts. By setting the precedent of not considering student voices in the college’s financial decisions, Vassar actively sends a message of money over morality. 

In response to Columbia University’s campaign to divest from private prisons in 2015, Christianna A. Wood, a member of the Vassar Board of Trustees, adamantly opposed divestment as a vehicle for social change. This response is mirrored in Vassar’s rejection of the campaign to divest from the fossil fuel industry. In 2019, the Board of Trustees released a statement saying that “the board believes that the endowment of the college exists solely to support the mission of the college and that it is the fiduciary duty of the board, derived from our founding documents, governance, and the state law, to preserve the endowment solely for achieving the best risk-adjusted return.” The hesitancy for Vassar to divest at all, highlights its deep involvement in systems that perpetuate harm to vulnerable communities. Specifically, Vassar’s association with the PIC is concerning in regards to the well being of its students, as it shows a blatant disregard to the lives of so many marginalized folks that look like many of the students Vassar continually puts on their pamphlets and advertisement campaigns. Vassar continues to foreground their support for numerous systems of oppression by claiming it is their ‘fiduciary duty’. The deployment of Vassar’s money to the PIC as a means of profit is deeply embedded in many of the college’s financial endeavours. 

Examples of Vassar’s involvement with the Prison Industrial Complex:

  • Vassar pays 6 million dollars a year to our food service provider Bon Appetite’s parent company, Compass Group, which used to be the largest food provider in prisons, and continues to hold stake in the PIC. 
  • Until 2017, Vassar used food service provider Aramark, a 16.2 billion dollar company, that also provides food to prisons. Aramark is now being sued for not paying any of the inmates that worked for them. 
  • Vassar profited off the sale and retention of substantial shares of Trinity Services Group, a food service provider to prisons and jails. 
  • The school has a close relationship with IBM, a company that has used prison labor. 
  • The school’s payroll used to include someone whose title was “warden.” Before then, a “lady principal” referred to students as “inmates.” The use of this language directly contributes to the traumatization of black and brown students on campus. The college’s ignorance to the harmful nature of this work perfectly exemplifies the reckless disregard and lack of concern for the wellbeing of their POC students. 
  • Vassar had a speaker slated to come present last year to talk about the “mathematics of policing,” with a racially charged “predictive policing computer program,” which directly puts BIPOC in danger. 
  • Linda Fairstein, the lead prosecutor of the Central Park 5 case, served on Vassar’s board of trustees for numerous years, and only resigned after recent publicity from the Netflix series. 
  • Vassar has not yet “banned the box,” meaning they still require professional and student applicants to answer questions about felony convictions. While Duke, the UC’s, and the SUNY’s have all banned the box and hire formerly incarcerated people.
  • Vassar’s lack of response to police brutality in our own Poughkeepsie community highlights the institution’s lack of care.

The Vassar mission statement says: “Vassar is now open to all and strives to pursue diversity, inclusion, and equity as essential components of a rich intellectual and cultural environment in which all members, including those from underrepresented and marginalized groups, are valued and empowered to thrive.” This language is inherently political. As stated in a recent student publication, “The fight for equity and the empowerment of marginalized groups will never be apolitical acts and if the college really sought to align itself with the mission statement,” it would divest from the PIC. Vassar’s attempts to depoliticize the endowment are in an effort to continue to mystify the effects that Vassar’s money has on our society. All investments are political. Therefore, Vassar’s endowment is already a political vehicle that directly impacts the lives of its students, whose families are active contributors to the endowment itself, as well as communities surrounding the college. By having financial ties to the PIC, Vassar College directly contradicts their goal to create a community “in which all members, including those from underrepresented and marginalized groups, are empowered to thrive.”

Vassar’s hesitance to divest is not only a contradiction of its mission statement, but also its financial well-being. Through research done at Freecap Financial, it is clear that having prison labor in a company’s supply chain, or having an active role in the PIC, poses a huge risk to businesses. Companies like Victoria’s Secret have recently faced backlash for their involvement with the prison system due to increased political awareness, which has had negative financial consequences. Their business and reputation has not been able to recover since this scandal, and L Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, had to go so far as to spin off the company to mitigate losses that it created. The board and financial overseers of the Vassar portfolio are not properly assessing the risk that the PIC poses to companies’ performance and, thus, the Vassar portfolio’s performance. Investing in companies whose business models center the exploitation of black and brown communities is not only morally wrong, but also financially irresponsible. Divesting from the prison industrial complex not only strengthens Vassar’s commitment to “diversity, inclusion, and equity,” but also decreases the risk of the school’s portfolio. 

Due to the current pandemic, Vassar has recently advertised itself as an institution that wants students to embrace a “we before me” attitude. We ask that Vassar share the same enthusiasm with their monetary decisions. Vassar promotes an idea of a community through “Vassar Together”, which asks community members to act outside of their own self interest, and instead towards the communal goal of shared safety and respect for one another. President Bradley in her recent article in Forbes titled “Higher Ed’s Role In Tackling Two Pandemics, Covid-19 And Racism,” powerfully states that in order to transform racism, “The more potent strategy would recognize that racism is systemic, entrenched in all facets of life: housing, education, health care, employment, the criminal justice system and more. Addressing these roots of racism requires not only a deep belief that all people are created equal and that our futures are dependent on each other, but also consistent investments in and expressed commitment to anti-racism.” We hope Vassar as an institution will recognize systemic racism and choose to commit itself to the strategy that President Bradley has expressed. Students are financially tied to Vassar by the money they give for their education as well as through their family members who are active contributors to the Vassar Endowment. Vassar has refused to disclose any financial holdings, even though the community deserves to be aware of the management of its financial contributions. Therefore, Vassar has a responsibility to value student voices in monetary decisions and be forthcoming about where money is going. Vassar needs to be cognizant of the institution’s fiduciary responsibility to Vassar families, and be transparent about what Vassar money is contributing to. 

As a pioneer in higher education Vassar must be held responsible and accountable for its ongoing contributions to the marginalization and dehumanization of black and brown bodies. Financially supporting the prison complex is against the core values that Vassar claims to hold so dearly. Vassar is in a situation to be on the forefront of racial justice in America and we, as a group of students, alumni, faculty, and community members, believe that Vassar must agree to the demands we have laid out to take accountability for the institution’s role in the Prison Industrial Complex.

List of Demands

  1. DISCLOSE- provide transparency about what companies and funds we are currently invested in, as well as our admission rates for students who were formerly incarcerated, and our current relationship and ties (monetary or non) to local law enforcement agencies.
  2. Pledge to create more student representation in CIRC and value student voices in monetary decisions – redoing student conduct system. 
  3. DIVEST from Private Prisons.
  4. DIVEST from companies that use prison labor-companies that are the middleman.
  5. DIVEST from companies who hold a monopoly on the captive market of prisons and charge predatory prices for under quality services to incarcerated people and their families. 
  6. DIVEST from companies that don’t hire formerly incarcerated employees.
  7. Pledge to increase the amount of formerly incarcerated employees at Vassar College.
  8. REINVEST in companies who hire formerly incarcerated individuals (eg. Slack)
  9. REINVEST in programs that aid minority communities in Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County.
  10. REINVEST in transformative/restorative justice (healing communal practices that allow perpetrators of violence to be held accountable with actionable solutions that do not involve punitive justice/the carceral state). 

Signed, 

Black Student Union ● Gradient ● Vassar Prison Initiative 

Co-Sponsors:

African Student Union ● Sikh Student Association ● Conversations Unbound at Vassar ● TEDxVassar ● Vassar Leftist Union ● Ferry House ● Vassar Student Union ● Vassar Student Musicians’ Union ● Vassar Asian American Studies Working Group (VASM) ● Vassar Disability Coalition ● Vassar Voices for Planned Parenthood ● Vassar College Democrats ● Vassar TBD ● Vassar Challah For Hunger ● The Vassar Brew Coffee Bar  ● Vassar GREENS ● Vassar Muslim Student Association ● Democracy Matters ● Vassar Peace Action ●The Vassar Devils ● Contrast Magazine ● Vassar Quidditch ● Vassar Finance Club ● Vassar Project Period ● ViCE Music ● Indecent Exposure ● Hunger Action ● Multiracial Biracial Student Alliance ● Vassar College Social Dancing Club ● Vassar Christian Fellowship ● Amnesty International Vassar ● UJIMA: A Groove Society ● Indecent Exposure ● Vassar Outing Club

Necessary Links: 

To share your name in support, please sign here.

To share your organization’s name in support, please sign here.

To see a list of signatories, see here. This page will be updated periodically with our signatories.

Reach out to vassarprisondivestment@gmail.com with any questions or concerns.

One Comment

  1. I am outraged that the Quiddich Club has signed off on this letter when CLEARLY the Hogwarts administration has been complicit in the repression of house elves for millennia!

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