University Endowments and Abolition Feminist Movements:
A Call for Extending U.S. Based Endowments to Community Knowledge Production Sites
As we all conjure up futures beyond our current climate crisis and public health emergency, we have been thinking a great deal about how to do things differently. This includes reconsidering the ethical and moral dilemmas of how funds flow into and within U.S. university settings in the form of endowments, given their immense power within our global economy. We know that university and college administrators, along with their financial investment teams, are likely scrambling to figure out how to keep their campuses open and remain in the business of intellectual knowledge exchange while faced with a multi-year pandemic. These university administrators and university financial teams are addressing the ethical violations in how they have profited over the years sparked by increasing demands that campuses end an ongoing culture of rape (with annual Take Back the Night programs), by increasing demands to cut financial ties with prisons, by increasing demands to divest from fossil fuel companies, by increasing demands to provide land acknowledgements in honor of Indigenous people (primarily affecting universities and colleges with land grants), and by increasing demands for more discussions of reparations to address complicitous histories with the U.S. slave economic system, and support for the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement in support of Palestinian people. Universities are now faced with many ethical challenges that have placed them in not only a health and wealth crisis but also existential crises. These crises leave us in a position looking to fund education differently.
Let us first point out that many of these ethical violations charged to universities are highlighted by Left and feminist movements and activists. Abolition feminists are sounding the alarm about the intimate ties between the carceral state and gender oppression, bringing us to bear and meditate on the considerable benefits of critically interrogating and decolonizing institutions of higher education. This critical and historical interrogation of higher education moves us to rethink how we reserve the business of intellectual knowledge exchange for universities and colleges along with their institutional apparatuses (i.e. libraries, presses, archives, professional organizations, museums). The development of interdisciplinary studies came into fruition with the agenda of breaking up academia and traditional ways of creating and exchanging knowledge. However, the radical and political promise of the movement for interdisciplinarity is always undermined by the capitalist pursuits of the neoliberal university, where, for example, curriculum on social justice is available along with an ongoing culture of rape on many campuses. Community and student activists in the 1960s and 1970s were not only seeking space on college campuses, but those same institutions of higher education were always working with the state to incorporate radical, intellectual community traditions as a tactic to survive late capitalism, and subdue the liberatory progress of historically marginalized populations.
To further our point, Abolitionist feminists are not only demanding an end to mass incarceration but are requiring campuses to be accountable for their financial participation in prison systems. We know that keeping people in cages does not create a better society, and that university and college campuses have a financial stake in prisons is intellectually regressive. Let’s not forget about the ongoing specific feminist understanding of this issue moves our attention further to the long history of gender-based violence on campuses. Left, feminists, and activist movements have already done so much work at exposing the historic violations of U.S. based institutions of higher learning.
Left, feminist, and activist movements are urging universities to invest in community-based movements and activist projects that are meaningful to their campus stakeholders in surrounding communities. You may say to yourself: Why endowments? What exactly are endowments? How and where do they currently work? How does endowment accountability continue this work?
Educational endowments are financial plans for designating assets that serve the purpose of funding our intellectual future. Educational institutions, in alignment with nation state apparatuses in need of human labor, develop endowments to robustly finance intellectual knowledge recognized as invaluable in the way of sustaining and growing the economy. An issue that has happened because of endowments is that college and university campuses have made necessary transitions to partial, if not complete, virtual education in response to the vast increase in COVID 19 cases. Public discourse on educational institutions’ complicity with the U.S. slave economy, with current remnants in private prisons and fossil fuel companies, to profit from the impact of our global environmental crisis, has incited awareness on educational systems and endowments’ influence on contemporary forms of social inequality. But the world of educational funding is rarely interrogated as a corporate entity, and scrutinized for its social contract on solving social problems, even though we depend on education systems to help cultivate a better world.
In the past few years, with increased discourse on reparations, wealthy campuses have begun their own internal community dialogues on their campuses’ historical complicity to a slave economic system that directly affects people of African descent. Some predominantly white campuses are finally honoring Indigenous people with land acknowledgments.
An Abolition queer feminist movement for educational endowment accountability highlights the significant impact that educational funds have on addressing the historic and contemporary culture of social inequality, in ways that are culturally affirming, competent, and pleasurable. Much of the recent activism specifically focusing on university endowments demands divestments from harmful wealth building entities – private prisons and fossil fuel companies to name a few. This work is not entirely new. We know of previous student and community led movements on campuses to create centers and departments that prioritize social minorities traditionally excluded from formal education have won in the past, and continue to lead the progressive strides on campuses. In the wake of such successes are the emergent systems with principles that counter the now late capitalism.
Our current crisis suggests our capitalist economic system is not suitable for the needs of our environment. Gaining endowments enhances the economic viability of academic fields and shows our most urgent needs for societal prosperity. But of course, intellectual work is not only being done in academia. What might it mean for endowments to shift funding towards intellectual endeavors that prioritize intellectual communities outside of the academy?
We can look to the Responsible Endowments Coalition as a neoliberal attempt for what this reinvestment of endowments to community uses would look like and mean for reforming the university setting. The year 2004 marked the beginnings of endowment activism with the creation of the Responsible Endowments Coalition, a worker-led organization based in Berkeley, CA known for assisting groups on socially responsible investing. Over the years, according to their website, Responsible Endowments Coalition has grown to supervise over 3 trillion dollars in assets that are fossil fuel free, lead the UnConference and Intentionally Designed Endowment Student Forum, and started a network centered on endowment justices. Despite these wins, more recently in 2021, Responsible Endowments Coalition announced that they will close, stating that the lack of resources and specifically funds to continue as an organization. The Responsible Endowments Coalition still serves as an important example in movements and activists’ efforts to ground endowment investments in economic justice.
So, what to learn from the Responsible Endowments Coalition? Engaging solidarity networks on campuses that focus on environmental, anti-racist, feminist, trans, and queer movement building, is fruitful support for countering the limitations of a neo-liberal environmental justice movement. The ongoing environmental movement on campuses (and in Congress) is happening alongside feminist and racial justice organizing; student led direct actions highlighting pervasive sexual violence on campuses; and recent conferences on reparations and the history of university and college investments in the U.S. slave economy. Rarely discussed is the genocidal removal of Indigenous peoples that led to federal land grants to secure school properties. Demands on universities and colleges to divest from fossil fuel companies is growing, given our current dire environmental struggles (we can’t have intellectual exchange and production if we can’t even breathe, or access clean water!). But we can’t have environmental justice without addressing systemic racism and gender oppression. Given the university system’s complicity to massive social and environmental damage, we need a campaign to hold them to account. “Dismantling the Ivory Tower” is one such example started by the Allied Media Conference in 2015, a worker share community gathering led by LGBTQ people of color in Detroit.
A community-based alliance for educational endowment accountability must include an intersectional analysis and direct action platform for sustainable investments – a cross-sectional analysis of social issues related to environmental climate change and its impact on investment portfolios of education funds – that support social justice for marginalized populations, and groups of people historically exploited through higher education. Such a community-based alliance would call for endowments to fund denuclearization and disarmament, cooperative agricultural enterprises, interfaith initiatives, sexual and reproductive justice, closing all prisons, and to have robust investments in economically poor educational institutions.
While university and college campuses announce their COVID-19-sensitive financial plans for the upcoming fiscal year, we must organize to ensure that grassroots and social justice movement work is robustly funded because of its impact on transformative and intellectual change. The events of today remind us we can no longer leave it to formal academic institutions to have such a dominant control over our intellectual future, and must demand financial initiatives that help decolonize knowledge exchange. However, we must also cultivate worker-led organizations committed to direct action on endowment activism – demanding socially responsible investing that uses an intersectional analysis of social issues affecting marginalized communities.
Onyekachi Ekeogu is a PhD candidate in Justice Studies at Arizona State University.
Lamont Loyd-Sims is an emerging dance/movement arts therapist & scholar-activist based in Pittsburgh PA.