Harvard students file lawsuit demanding school pull investments from prisons

They’re taking their fight from the campus to the courtroom.

A group of Harvard University students filed a lawsuit Wednesday to force the Ivy League school to withdraw its investment funds from companies that profit from the prison industry — ratcheting up past efforts that included a petition drive and protests.

The Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign wants a judge to require the university to divest its $40 billion endowment — the largest in academia — from prisons and related companies and produce a report outlining its direct and indirect investments in the industry.

In addition, the group is accusing the school of violating its fiduciary duty and breaching its charter and falsely advertising itself as an institution that wants to redress the harms of slavery, while still benefiting from the prison system, which incarcerates more than 2 million people in the United States, about a third of them black.

“Instead of helping to dismantle the entanglement of profiteering, government interests, and the system of human caging, Harvard makes profit off of it,” the five student plaintiffs, who are representing themselves, wrote in the complaint filed in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County. “That money funds the opulent lifestyles of Harvard’s top administrators who are prison profiteers.”

This isn’t the first time that students who support divestment have sued Harvard.

In 2014, seven student activists filed a lawsuit attempting to compel the school to withdraw its holdings from the fossil fuel industry because of how it contributes to climate change.

The lawsuit was dismissed in court.

Although the plaintiffs argued that they had ties to the endowment because as students they benefited from the investments, a judge at the time wrote they failed “to show that they have been accorded a personal right in the management or administration of Harvard’s endowment that is individual to them or distinct from the student body or public at large.”

As students, they had no “special standing” in regard to the endowment, which is overseen by the Harvard Management Company, the university’s investment arm.

With that in mind, the five plaintiffs in this latest lawsuit are taking a new tack: They’re more than just students — all of them have donated money to the school in the past year.

“Our standing now is based on the premise that we’re donors to the university,” Xitlalli Alvarez, a plaintiff and a doctoral student in anthropology, said.

“This is one way to hold Harvard’s feet to the fire,” Alvarez added.

The Harvard Management Company referred questions Tuesday to the school, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.

A spokesman for university President Lawrence S. Bacow, who is named in the suit, said last year that Bacow has “appreciated the opportunity to meet with advocates for prison divestment” and offered to arrange a meeting for them with the Harvard committee that makes endowment decisions.

Such a meeting took place in October and included Bacow, according to the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign. But the students said the committee wouldn’t commit to providing an “exposure assessment” of the endowment’s investments in prison-related companies and declined to say whether divestment was even on the table.

Bacow has maintained that social change must occur through education and teaching, as opposed to modifying the endowment.

According to campaign members, Bacow told them last spring that the school’s prison-related investments are only $18,000. But based on a review of the 1 percent of the school’s endowment invested in public holdings, the figure is at least $3 million, the campaign found, according to research published in April.

While Harvard has previously agreed to pull investments from companies that profit from the tobacco industry, apartheid South Africa and the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, students who support divestment from the fossil fuel and prison industries say they are puzzled by the current inaction.

But pressure has been building on campus for divestment, particularly related to fossil fuel companies. Faculty members in the arts and sciences department this month voted overwhelmingly in favor of fossil fuel divestment, and Bacow said he would bring the resolution to the school’s endowment committee for consideration.

Richard Daynard, a distinguished professor of law at Northeastern University who has spearheaded litigation against the tobacco industry, said the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign’s lawsuit has a chance to gain traction because the plaintiffs are also donors, which adds an extra distinction and an argument that they have more at stake in how the endowment is invested.

Ted Hamilton, who was one of the Harvard students who filed the fossil fuel-related lawsuit in 2014, said he is supportive of the current plaintiffs’ efforts.

By suing the school, “you make them articulate and defend their position in a different forum,” Hamilton, the co-founder of the nonprofit Climate Defense Project, said. “And you create a historic record of activists trying to hold institutions accountable and make them admit in open court why they’re on the wrong side of history.”