After two referenda questions passed in the Tufts Community Union fall 2020 special election, Patrick Collins, executive director of media relations, released a statement announcing that the university would not be taking action in response to the referenda.
The referenda, proposed by Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine and Tufts for a Racially Equitable Endowment, passed in an election open to the entire undergraduate student body. According to TCU’s Elections Commission, the level of voter turnout was higher than in any other special election in Tufts history, with 42% of the student body voting.
SJP’s referendum called for the demilitarization of the Tufts University Police Department and passed with 68% of voters in favor. TREE’s referendum called for Tufts to divest from corporations that profit off of the private prison system and passed with 88% of voters in favor.
Collins said that because TCU referenda are non-binding and conducted independently of Tufts’ administration, the university will not be taking action.
He said the SJP referendum mischaracterized the university’s approach to policing and public safety.
“As stated previously, we believe the SJP-sponsored referendum was misinformed and factually incorrect,” Collins wrote in an email to the Daily. “The choice presented to students was unfair and inaccurate, effectively asking them to denounce a program because of its affiliation with Israel or be perceived as supportive of militarizing the TUPD.”
Members of SJP, however, rejected the assertion that the trip in question was not militaristic. They said that part of the discrepancy comes from a recent rebranding of the trip by the Anti-Defamation League to a “leadership seminar.”
“We can see there was a change in itinerary and name which the university is now latching onto to claim the trip did not include a military component,” the members, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of their safety, wrote in an email to the Daily.
SJP cites previous Tufts Daily reporting from 2018 as the basis for the wording of their referendum.
“The language of our referendum is based on the Tufts Daily article which references the [Anti-Defamation League] website at the time,” SJP said. “[The wording] accurately describes the militarized trip that Kevin Maguire went on in December of 2017.”
According to SJP, law enforcement seminars hosted in Israel put police officers in direct contact with Israeli military officials, which they claim contributed to a normalization of police militarization among members of TUPD.
“It is undeniable that the TUPD Chief training with police and military officials known for violent suppression tactics and occupation contributes to an environment where militarization is normalized,” SJP said. “This process of normalization is incredibly dangerous since on these trips, officers can further internalize racist rhetoric that allows them to view POC students as threats.”
They cited a Seattle Times article on the subject from 2017 as further evidence.
“The seminar brought together members of law enforcement of every level from throughout New England to learn from senior Israeli intelligence, police and military officials about the latest methods of preventing terrorism,” the article said.
Collins maintained the university’s stance, restating that the referendum conveyed misinformation about the 2017 seminar to the student body.
“Contrary to descriptions offered by the referendum’s sponsors, the seminar was a sharing of lessons and information about preparing and responding to terrorism, an unfortunate fact of life for which all police departments, including university police departments, must prepare,” Collins said. “In no way did the program endorse police brutality or racial profiling, and in fact rejected them.”
According to SJP, Tufts is not giving these issues the time they deserve.
“Rather than addressing the reality of TUPD’s militarization and listening to the thousands of [student] voices — particularly the Black and Brown students most affected by police violence — and taking accountability, Tufts’ administration is making disproven claims to prioritize public appearance over their own students’ safety,” SJP said.
However, Collins stated that the university is currently undergoing a review of its public safety procedures that was initiated last year to determine how to best implement campus policing moving forward.
“As part of the University’s commitment to the effort of ensuring that Tufts is an anti-racist institution, President Monaco last year launched five workstreams, one of which was charged with benchmarking best practices of how other universities manage policing on their campuses and asking critical questions about the power dynamics of policing at Tufts,” Collins said.
Collins reported that each workstream will publish its findings and recommendations once it concludes its work.
Collins also announced that the university will not be taking action in response to TREE’s referendum, which called for Tufts to divest from companies that profit off of the private prison system.
“The referendum on private prison divestment also was non-binding and was conducted by the student body independent of the university’s administration; the university will not be taking action in response to the vote’s outcome,” Collins said.
Collins stated that, like the SJP referendum, the TREE referendum was misinformed. He said Tufts holds no direct investments in private prisons, but rather is only exposed to them through commingled funds.
Commingled funds, which make up the majority of Tufts’ investments, are managed by third parties and therefore are not customizable by Tufts.
“When the university last reviewed its detailed holdings through commingled funds earlier this year, the university’s exposure to private prisons through commingled funds was less than 0.01% of the total portfolio,” Collins said. “Tufts is unable to dictate which securities are held in these pools.”
Gabe Reyes and Molly Gould, members of TREE, acknowledged that Tufts’ investment in private prisons is held in a commingled fund, but are still pushing for Tufts to have no investment — either direct or indirect — in the private prison system.
“Tufts’ total return pool owns approximately $72,000 in private prison investments, which is represented by a single private prison stock that is part of a commingled fund,” Reyes and Gould wrote in an email to the Daily. “These are the funds that prompted TREE to propose our referendum … We still demand the removal of the $72,000 which Tufts does have invested in private prisons.”
According to Reyes, a junior, any investment in the private prison system is problematic, and Tufts ought to remove itself completely from any investments that profit off of the private prison system, no matter how small.
“Regardless, $72,000 is a substantial amount of money for which Tufts is responsible, as it enables [profit-making] from the abuse and exploitation of human beings, and BIPOC and poor folks in particular,” Reyes said. “Considering that the administration has been proclaiming its commitment to being an anti-racist institution, pulling out of these indirect holdings would be a necessary step in achieving that goal.”
Collins said the proper path for TREE to take when it comes to evaluating Tufts’ investments would be the creation of a Responsible Investment Advisory Group, instead of the passage of a referendum.
“If approved for creation, the [Responsible Investment Advisory Group] may raise and study concerns surrounding potential social impact caused by the investing activities in question and provide advisory recommendations on such issues to the Investment Committee, a subcommittee of the Trustees’ Administration and Finance Committee,” Collins said. “The process provides students with a reliable mechanism to raise concerns to the attention of trustees.”
Reyes said TREE is interested in taking this path.
“TREE is planning to form a [Responsible Investment Advisory Group] in the near future,” Reyes said. “We also want to push the university to engage in positive investment, such as investing in Black and Indigenous communities of color, only working with ethical brokers in the future, and diverting funds generated from the endowment towards other anti-racist efforts.”
Representatives from both TREE and SJP announced that while they were disheartened by the university’s lack of action to the passage of their referenda, they said this inaction was not unexpected.
“Although we hoped Tufts would act promptly on the referendum results, this is an outcome we anticipated,” Reyes said. “These results … will still better enable our demands [to] be met in the future.”
Despite the administration’s inaction and the non-binding nature of TCU referenda and resolutions, Reyes sees engagement in student government as a crucial first step in accomplishing their goals as a student group.
“We believe that referenda and resolutions are important in that they bring to light major issues that affect the student body and subsequently enable us to express our desires for the university to act,” Reyes said.
Similarly, SJP believes that while referenda and resolutions do not force the university to act, they place pressure on the administration by disclosing the general opinion of the Tufts community.
“Regardless of whether the [administration] ignores resolutions, referendums, or other student initiatives, students will continue to organize together for justice and empower each other,” SJP said. “The purpose of the referendum reaches far beyond Tufts’ campus, it shows the public the opinion of university students.”