UW president Ana Mari Cauce and Howard Frumkin, dean of the School of Public Health, refused to sign statements brought to them Friday from students seeking prison divestment by the UW.
Both the president and the dean were emailed the demands a week in advance. Cauce and Frumkin were informed in the email precisely when students would show up asking for signatures in person. All of the public health department chairs were also asked to sign the document in emails, but they abstained.
“History was made today,” organizer Cynthia Simekha said after both administrators declined to sign. “You can’t be neutral.”
The group of approximately 30 students went first to the School of Public Health office in the Magnuson Health Science Centers to speak to Frumkin.
“I’m on the same page as the sentiments here but I’m not ready to sign this,” Frumkin said. “I don’t understand enough [about prison divestment].”
Laughter and disbelief echoed throughout the crowd. Students repeated multiple times that the statement they were asking the dean to sign was not one of substantial commitment, but rather a statement of principle.
Palca Shibale, another student organizer, said Frumkin was approaching the document he was asked to sign as calculus, when it was more akin to “one plus one equals two.” Frumkin wanted more specifics however, including statistics and the names of companies to divest from.
“This is not the way I would attack this problem,” Frumkin said.
Miya Scott, a graduate student in the UW School of Social Work, pointed out that privilege enabled Frumkin to start learning about prisons this late in his career.
“You keep saying again and again ‘I don’t know about this,’” Scott said. “At the ripe old age of 35, you’re just now learning about the prison system.”
Tensions were high throughout the discussion. Frumkin and students began occasionally talking over each other, raising their voices out of frustration, and competing to be heard.
Frumkin contended that he wouldn’t sign something he had no part in creating.
“With all due respect, people frequently sign things they haven’t written themselves,” graduate student Andre Stephens said.
After approximately an hour of back-and-forth, students marched to Cauce’s office without Frumkin’s signature.
As the group approached the right side of Gerberding Hall, they came upon a waiting Cauce.
“I was on my way home and heard you guys were coming,” she said as the group encircled her, despite having received notification via email a week prior.
While Cauce also agreed with what was in the document, she wanted more specificity. The president went back and forth between announcing her agreement but still declining to sign. During her interaction with students, there were even more incidences of competing voices.
“There’s an individual me, and there’s a me that is the president of the university,” Cauce said.
She reminded students how, as an individual, she is against Initiative 200, which bans affirmative action. But as president, Cauce said, she is obligated to comply with state law.
Students expressed to Cauce that she should bring the components of herself into her job, and they didn’t understand why she is not doing that. They argued it was because of Cauce’s unique identity and viewpoints that students were so supportive of her presidency.
As tensions rose, and Cauce repeated she wasn’t willing to sign the document, the president eventually walked away from the students before the discussion ended.
Before leaving, Cauce said there “aren’t any investments primarily in the main private prisons” at first glance.
Student Regent Vanessa Kritzer also said the UW has no “direct” investments with prisons, meaning there are no individual holdings.
Kritzer is in charge of coordinating meetings between any interested students and activists wanting divestment with the UW Treasury and the UW Procurement offices. The two offices previously worked with activists who succeeded in getting the UW to divest from coal.
She predicts the next meeting will happen in approximately two weeks, and those interested can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This signature-seeking activism followed discussions and forums between Frumkin and students, faculty, and staff from the School of Public Health.
At the end of the last forum, attendees and the dean were told to email Anu Taranath, a UW faculty member, so all could move forward with groups designated to particular action items.
Taranath confirmed in an email to The Daily that there was follow-through, and that she had received 14 or 15 discussion summaries held at the forum.
Frumkin also followed through in sending an email to the entire School of Public Health, detailing the work groups and how many people were in them.
“Accountability is important to have in that analysis when dealing with administration,” Shibale said, explaining why activists sought signatures.
These events have branched out after Michael Moynihan, a UW philosophy major and activist coordinator, claimed more than a year ago that the UW has hedge funds in prison companies, and receives some of its furniture from prison labor.
While seeking Frumkin’s signature, graduate student Dimitri Groce told the dean, “Until it decides to take a stand, the UW will remain an ivory tower in Seattle.”