After deciding last spring not to recommend divestment from Exxon Mobil Corp., Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility has turned its attention to another controversial aspect of the University’s investment portfolio: the for-profit prison industry.

The ACIR is “actively engaged” in researching private prisons and plans to meet with the advocacy group Yale Students for Prison Divestment to discuss the issue further, said Jonathan Macey LAW ’82, a corporate law professor who chairs the ACIR, which comprises students, faculty members and staff members.

“We have to collect information,” Macey said. “We’re going to meet with the people from the prison divestment movement on campus and probably work collaboratively with them to come up with a timetable” for reaching a final decision.

The ACIR makes investment recommendations to the Yale Corporation, which has final decision-making authority over the University’s investments. Last spring, despite the advocacy of the student group Fossil Free Yale, the ACIR elected not to recommend divestment from Exxon Mobil, the largest oil and gas company in the world.

The ACIR bases its recommendations on “The Ethical Investor: Universities and Corporate Responsibility,” a decades-old manual that calls for Yale to divest from companies that cause “grave social injury.” In recent years, the University has repeatedly rebuffed the efforts of advocacy groups like Fossil Free Yale to urge divestment from controversial companies.

It remains to be seen whether YSPD will have better luck persuading the ACIR. In 2005, the committee defended the University’s investments in Corrections Corporation of America, which owns and manages private prisons, on the grounds that the company’s activities did not meet the high threshold for social harm set out in “The Ethical Investor.”

But for now, at least, the prison divestment discussion appears to be back on the table. Last school year, the ACIR met with Cameron Hopewell, the managing director for investor relations at Core Civic, the rebranded title of the Corrections Corporation of America. In the coming weeks, YSPD hopes to meet with the ACIR to discuss the University’s private prison investments.

“We’re especially interested in private immigrant detention, which is a practice we’re seeing more and more under the Trump administration,” said Vinay Basti ’18, a member of YSPD’s board. “Yale administrators have made many statements in support of immigrant students on campus, and we believe it’s very important that Yale shows that through divestment from private prison companies at large.”

Meanwhile, Fossil Free Yale is unlikely to continue pushing for divestment from Exxon Mobil now that the ACIR has made its decision, said Rachel Calnek-Sugin ’19, an active member of FFY.

Calnek-Sugin declined to comment on the group’s plans for this year. But, she said, FFY has learned two major lessons since the spring: that the slow pace of Yale’s decision-making process is “out of step” with the urgency of the climate change crisis and that to secure a divestment decision, students must show evidence of ongoing misbehavior, not just historical examples of poor corporate practice.

For Nathan Lobel ’17, a former member of FFY, divestment from the fossil fuel industry seems an unlikely prospect. Not only does the ACIR work too slowly to pass judgment on ongoing behavior, Lobel said, but its mere existence indicates that Yale is unwilling to engage directly with students on the issue of divestment.

“The body that we are directed to engage with is fundamentally unable to make the type of well-researched decision that it requires in order to make a recommendation,” he said. “It is a sham, in which the University gets to appear well-intentioned and reasonable without ever having to change its policies.”

Still, Macey offered a glimmer of hope to student activists who advocated for divestment from Exxon Mobil.

“It’s something that we have worked on and may continue to work on,” he said. “We’d certainly look at any new information that were to come out about Exxon Mobil.”

Britton O’Dalybritton.odaly@yale.edu

David Yaffe-Bellanydavid.yaffe-bellany@yale.edu | @yaffebellany 

Correction, Sept 20: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Vinay Basti ’18 was a co-founder of Yale Students for Prison Divestments when in fact he is a board member.