A Legacy of Moral Agitation
This call is not new to the Georgetown community, neither in focus nor in tactic. Our university enjoys a rich tradition of student activism and protest, as well as institutional action, inspired and guided by the University’s stated commitment to social justice—imbued with a deep sense of responsibility toward one’s fellow men and women.
In 2005, members of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee (GSC) staged a hunger strike to pressure the University to provide its workers with a living wage after years of committees and engaging with the University’s administration proved to be fruitless. The University responded to the demands of the students with its Just Employment Policy.
In June 2015, following years of tireless work of the Georgetown University Fossil Free (GUFF) campaign, the Board of Directors passed a resolution committing to divest its endowment from all companies whose principal business is mining coal for use in energy production. The administration announced on September 23, 2015, that the university had officially followed through on this pledge.
In November 2015, led by black women, a number of students staged a sit-in in President DeGioia’s office in protest of the naming of residence halls after a Thomas Mulledy, a former Georgetown President and slaveowner who sanctioned the sale of 272 human beings to pay off the university’s debts in 1838. President DeGioia answered their demands and committed to reconciling the University’s history of slavery through the Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation Initiative.
In 2016, 14 members of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee occupied President DeGioia’s office until the University agreed to cut their contract with Nike amidst the egregious workers rights violations in the Hansae Factory in Vietnam.
Traveling a bit farther back in our history—November 21, 1984, to be exact—then-Georgetown University law professor, Eleanor Holmes Norton, joined a delegation of high-profile leaders who staged a sit-in at the South African embassy. While her colleagues were eventually arrested, Holmes managed to evade the police and address the media and a growing crowd of supportive picketers outside the embassy to ensure that the motivation behind their actions was made clear.
Norton, along with three others, would go on to found the Free South Africa Movement (FSAM). This group would set into motion a powerful chain reaction of grassroots activism across the nation—including at Georgetown and dozens of other college campuses—culminating in the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. Many other nations quickly followed suit by piling onto the strengthening sanctions movement, forcing South Africa to dismantle its repugnant regime of racial discrimination and inequity.
But these successes were not achieved easily, nor were they always welcomed and celebrated in their earliest moments.
Georgetown’s Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility (CISR) was established in the late 1970’s in response to mounting concerns from the student body concerning South African apartheid. Despite continued demonstrations and activism demanding that the University divest from Apartheid South Africa, officials had yet to take necessary action. After years of activity and making little administrative headway, the campus had reached a boiling point in April 1986 when 35 Georgetown students were arrested for occupying the entrance of White-Gravenor Hall.
That same year, Georgetown students would go on to successfully pressure the Board of Directors to divest from all companies that failed to live up to the Sullivan Principles in South Africa.
Controversial, derided, and even divisive in their time, we have no doubt that the agitation and demands of Georgetown’s student body and the University’s decision to divest are now sources of pride for all members of our community. Yesterday, those internal pulls and tugs and debates forced our student body to move squarely onto the right side of history—even if only after a time.
While we anticipate that our call will be met with considerable criticism and resistance, we are determined to force a conversation about what we see as a glaring gulf between institutional values espoused and values actually adhered to, and to shine a spotlight on the morally odious and ethically untenable pattern of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the private prison industry, respectively.
While the University’s primary objective with respect to our endowment is to maximize long-term returns on investments, the governing principles of the CISR obligate consideration of investments that are alleged to be “inconsistent with the basic values of the University as a Catholic and Jesuit institution,” or corporate practices of investment that entail “substantial social injury or involve a significant violation of human rights.”
The thrust of our campaign is essentially a moral ultimatum: our university should either ensure that its financial behavior be in line with the values of justice and social responsibility it claims to obey, or, in the interest of honesty, we should drop any pretense of doing so.
While we are proud to be part of an institution and a campus community that chooses to commit itself to a lofty moral standard, we recognize that to make good on these commitments requires a continuous effort to get better and inch ourselves closer and closer to the ideals we hold.
It goes without saying that the struggle to harmonize institutional behavior on the one hand and moral principles on the other is a difficult and perpetually incomplete one; always a work-in-progress. Such efforts demand regular introspection—both by thinking conscientiously about how we approach the most novel issues our time and, yes, interrogating and reassessing established courses of action and long-standing convictions.
In a statement issued in the wake of national protests and outcry following the grand jury decisions not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the Ferguson murder of Michael Brown, nor the officer involved in the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, President John DeGioia cited the words of Fr. Pedro Arrupe on justice by saying that, “to be just, it is not enough to refrain from injustice.” Rather, President DeGioia reflects, “A just society requires that its members accept responsibility for one another…”
While we surely welcome and affirm this loftier standard of justice in principle, the demands of this divestment call actually fall short of Fr. Arrupe’s call and ask merely that we refrain from injustice by way of financial complicity.