Petitions, Divestment, and the Freedom to Think Otherwise

Published in the September 13, 2017 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

In this era of polarized politics and heated argument, alumni and others regularly suggest that Princeton take a stand about one or another public controversy. For the most part, we decline. One of my principal obligations as Princeton’s president is to ensure that the University remains a forum for vigorous, high-quality debate. Before taking stands on the University’s behalf, I have to weigh the risk that doing so might chill discussions that it is our responsibility to promote.

I accordingly choose carefully when and how I speak to public controversies. I am more likely to do so, for example, when an issue affects higher education directly or falls within my personal areas of expertise. Even when I do speak to an issue, I often avoid petitions. Petitions emphasize conformity: their logic suggests that since so many have signed, nobody should think otherwise. On a college campus, people must be free to dissent. The freedom to “think otherwise” matters greatly.

Divestment initiatives, which ask the University to dissociate from certain kinds of corporate and investment activities, require special care, not only to avoid the risk of orthodoxy but also to respect promises that Princeton has made to its donors. We agree to use and manage their gifts to advance Princeton’s educational mission, not to make political statements.

The University’s Board of Trustees has developed procedures to ensure that divestment occurs only when consistent with Princeton’s mission. Ultimate authority over divestment remains with the trustees, but longstanding procedures, developed in response to controversy about South African apartheid, create an important role for the Resources Committee of the Council of the Princeton University Community. The committee—which was established in 1970 and includes undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, and administrators—is charged with determining when to recommend that the board divest and dissociate from a particular company or set of companies.

The trustees have instructed the Resources Committee to bring forward divestment recommendations only if three conditions are satisfied: there must be “considerable, thoughtful, and sustained campus interest in an issue involving the actions of a company or companies”; the target corporations’ actions must be a “direct and serious violation” of a “central University value”; and there must be “a consensus on how the University should respond to the situation.” The guidelines allow the Resources Committee to exercise independent judgment about how to formulate any recommendations it makes; it is not limited to up-or-down judgments on proposals brought before it.

The Resources Committee must proceed deliberatively, not mechanically. The guidelines state, for example, that “sustained interest” may require that “an issue be raised several times … over an extended period of time, say two academic years.” They ask the committee to consider “the magnitude, scope, and representativeness of the expressions of campus opinion.” As examples of central University values, the guidelines mention “individual human rights and freedom of expression and dissent.” They also ask the committee to distinguish between the rights themselves and particular “political and social strategies for achieving them;” according to the guidelines, practical disagreements about how to implement a right are not a suitable basis for divestment.

These are demanding criteria. Over the past 50 years, the trustees have only twice endorsed divestment: once from certain corporations doing business in South Africa during apartheid, and once from companies doing business that abetted genocidal policies in Darfur.

During the last decade, the Resources Committee has responded to divestment initiatives related to guns, fossil fuels, and, over the past year, private prisons. The committee’s treatment of the prisons issue reflects the difficulty of its assignment. Princeton currently has no investment in any private prison companies. The question before the committee is whether the University should formally abjure such investments, or whether doing so would inappropriately use investment policy to advance a political cause. At public meetings, some members of the committee have expressed their personal concern about America’s carceral policies, such as its high incarceration rates, lengthy prison terms, and dangerous conditions in public as well as private prisons. I suspect most if not all of the committee members find unseemly the idea that an educational institution could profit from rising rates of incarceration.

Yet, the members have rightly noted the need to answer a number of questions. Is opposition to private prisons, however widely shared on campus, a concern about a human right, or a disagreement about which “political and social strategies” are best suited to protect that right? If divestment were recommended, would it cite specific companies and practices or would it apply to all companies associated with private prisons? Would divestment stifle argument about policies that ought to be actively debated on college campuses?

These are hard questions. They can put the committee’s members in an uncomfortable position, particularly when dealing with causes with which they sympathize. But they are also the right questions to ask at an institution that depends critically on protecting the ability of students and faculty to “think otherwise” and take unpopular positions.

C.L.E.


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