In 2013, a student group at Columbia University made a startling discover relating to the college’s investment portfolio: the management wing of the institution had been pouring millions of dollars into GEO Group, CCA, and G4S, some of the world’s largest private prison companies. SAMI (Students Against Mass Incarceration) among other student clubs was shocked at an over $8 million dollar investment in various correctional corporations. The disappointment at this investment strategy is understandable when gauging the damage correctional companies have done to the American criminal justice system. Prisons run for profit are often overcrowded, manage poor health standards, and terribly inhumane – corporations have a vested interest in incarcerating more prisoners and spending less money on each prisoner, benefiting from hefty government paychecks and a lack of proper transparency.
Columbia’s student groups ran a campaign to encourage the university to divest its funds from this nefarious corporations through the Prison Divest Week of Action that occurred last April. Part of the advocacy is to encourage full disclosure and transparency when dealing with the university’s investment policy. We fully agree, and in hopes of revealing more of the inhumane investment practices run by America’s academic institutions, we wanted to expose another disappointing investment made by the same college.
Columbia University happens to be one of the major shareholders of Aramark Corporation. In three different funds, Columbia has an investment of over .89% of Aramark’s public stock (breakdown being Columbia Contrarian Core Z (.47%), Columbia VP Contrarian Core 2 (.22%), and Columbia Value and Restructuring Z (.20%)). That amounts to more than $61 million dollars. That is equivalent to the tuition of around 1,000 students (granted many investment funds are sourced from donations and the university’s massive endowment, not directly from tuition). This investment is less publicized compared to their other direct contributions to GEO Group among others, but is one of notoriously equal scale. Part of the issue is that Columbia University didn’t publish a readable report that documented this investment; rather, we uncovered it by stumbling upon Aramark’s list of largest public shareholders, in which Columbia appeared three times through different subsections of its investment strategy.
While Aramark may not be a corporation often directly tied to the Prison Industrial Complex, it remains a corporation directly benefiting off of it (and hence a vested interest in seeing more prisons and more prisoners). Aramark provides 1 million meals a day to prisoners currently. That governs a major chunk of America’s absurdly high prison population. But this huge contribution to the sustaining of America’s prison population is one far from humane: Aramark is notorious for providing low quality food.
This criticism isn’t a mere complaint of how the health standards or quantity of meals is subpar; it is far worse. Aramark was reported to serving prisoners food that had maggot infestations. Aramark has served food so terrible that it has inspired food strikes. Aramark has a record of having employees smuggle illegal drugs into prison yards and engage in sexual abuse of prisoners. And outside of its dealings with prisoners, Aramark’s violation to the safety of its customers is evident in its poor record and lack of respect for safety concerns. The company also has a record of animal rights abuse claims, specifically in its treatment of animals kept in tiny crates.
For a food company, Aramark has very little interest in good food opposed to cheap “food”.
Granted, many colleges still do business with Aramark in relation to their own meal plans for their students. While the grotesque reality of the same corporation that serves maggots to prisoners is also serving students who pay college enormous tuition costs is startling, it is a conversation that only compliments the way colleges have tolerated and treated Aramark. But even with most universities doing business with Aramark to a certain degree, only Columbia has major investments in a company, so invested that it appears three times on the short list of its 20 top investors.
If an university wants to run its investment portfolio ethics blind – sure, leave your spending to a business level. But it is important to note that colleges receive huge subsidies and are registered non-profits, a justification for why ethical spending for an academic institution should be a priority. And investing in Aramark, especially a worth of $61 million dollars, is far from an ethical investment.