I have taught at colleges and universities for 15 years — art schools, community colleges, universities, even college age students in a prison — and what I’ve come to realize is that the U.S. system of colleges and universities or “The Academy,” as we like to call it, operates as a citizen in our communities. The Academy can be a good citizen or a destructive citizen, and like the rest of us, The Academy must make deliberate choices to be a good, antiracist member of the community.
As you can imagine, I am often in conversations about the culpability of colleges and universities in the community. What is the Academy’s responsibility to the community? What can we do? The answer, of course, is everything. But that answer causes a kind of guilt stasis that freezes people in place, so I have decided to share the five questions I ask colleges and universities when we are talking about what a good citizen does who values all genders, races, classes, abilities, and ages.
First, what must we divest from?
Last summer I taught at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center. I instructed a class of around 16 incarcerated mean on how to read and write about literature. It was the same freshman English course I was concurrently teaching at Washington University in St. Louis Missouri. In fact, the program was a collaboration between Washington University’s faculty and a program called the Prisoners Education Project at Washington University. It was some of the most fulfilling teaching I have ever experienced, but when the men and I began to converse about the unethical practice of private prisons, I began to wonder if Washington University’s billion-dollar endowment included an investment in private prisons.
I thought, “wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest?” Imagine a university making money off a company that must incarcerate people in order to profit, and then going into those spaces of incarceration to teach those people and receiving funds for doing it. Not just the funds, but community kudos for being (on the surface) a “good citizen.” I queried my colleagues and found out that this was not the first time the question was asked and that Washington University was adamant about the privacy of its endowment investments. This made me sad, and I realized that this was one more area where colleges and universities can make ethical financial choices using divestment from private prison investment.
Of course all of this dovetails with issues of race and class. Washington University, like other universities around the country, has an office of diversity and inclusion that is ostensibly there to create a more equitable student body. For black and brown students, the issue of mass incarceration is resonant. If a university is authentically attempting to serve black and brown students in particular it behooves them to acknowledge the role that mass incarceration plays in reducing the number of applicants from their ranks. It only adds insult to injury for a school to “talk out of both sides of his mouth,” on one side saying they would like more black and brown student, but on the other side profiting off the incarceration of the bodies of black and brown potential students. I hope more of us who are in community with colleges and universities begin to pressure them about divesting from private prisons.
The Responsible Endowment Coalition is a good place to start if you are a faculty member, student, or just live in the city where a college or university resides and you’d like to get active in this area.
Next Week, I’ll be exploring the question, “Whom Should We Support?”
Do comment to add to the list of resources regarding private prison divestment. Also, I’d love to hear from people who have asked the colleges and universities in their lives about whether their endowment contains private prisons.