Students Demand Conversation about BlackRock

By Hezekiah S. and Maya L.

Photograph taken by Amanda Gomez ’23

Pitzer’s Core Values have been called into question by students investigating the involvement of Pitzer trustee, Robert Fairbarn, in the investment management company, BlackRock. Conversations about the Fairbarn’s role in the company began after the Pitzer Free Wall was painted with a statement about Fairbarn, “profiting from concentration camps.”

According to their website, BlackRock is one of the biggest investment management companies in the world, managing trillions of dollars in assets for their clients. Robert Fairbairn is the Vice Chairman of BlackRock and former head of the iShares department, which is responsible for creating ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds) for their clients to invest in. 

ETFs consist of multiple companies’ investment. Fairbairn and the company as a whole have come under fire by Pitzer students for creating ETFs that include the company GEOgroup, the largest operator of private prisons and detention centers in the country, in addition to a number of major fossil fuel companies. These investments have led to calls for Fairbairn’s removal from the Board of Trustees. 

Student organizer Ngaya Swai PZ ‘23, explained why Fairbarn’s profits from detention centers and fossil fuels go against Pitzer’s core values.

“Any amount of profit coming from the detainment, the mistreatment of people of color, we do not want to accept that money,” Swai said. “I think people’s confusion is that people are like ‘its not [Fairbairn] directly, BlackRock has so much more money from other places,’ but that doesnt matter. The fact is he is getting money directly from these places and we don’t want to invest in that.”

This issue spurred intense discourse within the PZ class of ‘23 group chat on GroupMe and in a Town Hall called by first-year representative Michelle Mituri PZ ‘23. During this public discussion, topics ranged from the ethics and effectiveness of putting Fairbarn’s name on the Free Wall, to the financial implications for Pitzer if Fairbarn were removed from the Board of Trustees.

While the Town Hall meeting opened the floor for further dialogue regarding the issue, confusion remained among the attendees about the specific connections between Fairbairn,  BlackRock, the GEOgroup, and “concentration camps.”

Dean of Students Sandra Vasquez encouraged students to continue doing research and to use the administration as a resource. 

“I support you all engaging in this critical inquiry. Many of us support you in that. Let’s be partners in that exploration- I’m happy to work with you all, we can build a bridge and have a space for greater dialogue with other folks who may be able to provide more information or answer questions you may have.” Vasquez also warned students to consider the potential effects of their actions. “Making accusations against people can be very damaging and tarnishing, not only for those people, but also for communities. So be mindful, be respectful.” 

Following the meeting, a group of students formed a group called, “Students Demand Change.” Their instagram page, @sdc.coalition, describes themselves as a “coalition of students working to make change out of the Claremont Consortium.” The group has been meeting on Fridays, at 6:30pm in Skandera Hall P103, and are pursuing further action on the issue. 

On October 10th, the student organizers met with Pitzer President Melvin Oliver and Board of Trustees President Harold Brown about this issue. Brown wrote a statement to The Outback about the meeting. 

“I met with a group of students last Thursday and am pleased that the discussion was productive and engaging. As trustees, we are always open to conversations with our students, and hearing their perspectives on issues of concern to our community,” he said.

Swai agreed that the meeting was engaging, but felt that President Oliver and President Brown had not done enough research. 

“We had to give them sources and provide information… they were receptive to the idea of us talking to them about it, but it was clear that we are going to have to be the ones putting the drive behind it in order to make a change,” he said.

Students Demand Change is working on putting up posters around the school to clarify BlackRock’s involvement with the coal industry and private prisons. A member of the group, Nina Allworth PZ ‘23, explained her reasons for involvement.

“What is important for me right now is finding spaces for [students] to possibly be able to talk at some point, because we recognize that there are some people who are never gonna able able to speak. The system is inherently not letting them speak at all and maybe they don’t feel comfortable speaking and never will,” she said. “We are trying to use our platform to promote this issue, but we recognize that we are lucky to even be here.”

The LatinX Student Union is the first of the affinity groups to show support for the issue by sending a Solidarity Letter with a list of demands to President Melvin Oliver, the Board of Trustees, and Pitzer’s student-talk listserv. In addition to the removal of Fairbairn from the Board of Trustees, other demands included, “divestment from companies directly profitting from private prisons and immigrant detention centers, the establishment of an affinity group for undocumented students and the establishment of an ethics committee for future hiring and appointments.” 

A member of LSU, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of backlash, explained this act of solidarity. 

“LSU wants pitzer to be as inclusive as possible,” they said. “Yes, one of our demands is Robert Fairbairn is removed, but it is not just about the board of trustees, it is about the culture of Pitzer and making it more accessible and upholding its values. Our demands came from a place of ‘how do we make this a safe space for undocumented students, and create lasting change?’”

While there is a vocal group of students in favor of taking action against Fairbairn, some do not see any value in removing him from the Board of Trustees. According to Noah Gabor PZ ‘23, separating from BlackRock may feel good, but in actuality, it doesn’t accomplish much tangible change.

“In a small community like this… it’s important to not let a vocal minority be the sole voice on campus issues,” Gabor said. “What was initially put on the wall was a clear misunderstanding on the mechanics of how these systems work.”

According to Allworth, Students Demand Change intend on gaining a better understanding of the inner workings of Pitzer by continuing their investigation of institutional investments. 

“If we are promoting our school on the basis of these very important, very strong core identifiers, we need to live them, and we need to stand by our values even when it’s the unpopular opinion.” Allworth said.

Dani Miller ‘23 is from Bethesda Maryland. She enjoys podcasts, A24 Films, BROCKHAMPTON, and sharing her opinions with anyone who will hear them.

Hezekiah Smithstein ‘23 is from San Francisco, California. He loves writing, music, playing board games, and nature. As such, he often finds himself in the Outback, wandering the meandering trails and contemplating life.

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