Controversy explained: Pitzer Board of Trustees member accused of profiting from ‘concentration camps’

A message on an orange background reads "Pitzer Board of Trustees" "BlackRock" "GeoGroup" "Camps" with arrow connecting the words in a semicircle. The words "profiting from" are written in the middle.
A new message on Pitzer College’s “free wall” accuses trustee Robert Fairbairn of profiting off of the private prison industry. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

Pitzer College’s “free wall” was painted over the weekend of Sept. 21 with a message accusing Pitzer trustee Robert Fairbairn of profiting from “concentration camps,” sparking a conversation among students about whether Pitzer’s financing adheres to its core values.

The painting on the wall, located on the side of Mead Hall, read “Pitzer Board of Trustees Robert Fairbairn profitting [sic] from concentration camps.” 

The message included arrows connecting Fairbairn’s name to BlackRock, an asset management firm, and BlackRock to GEO Group, the largest operator of private prisons in the U.S. An arrow connected GEO Group to the words “concentration camps.” 

It’s been painted over several times since Monday and no longer mentioned Fairbairn’s name as of Wednesday.

“[A]s it currently stands, Pitzer isn’t really upholding their core values by having this man on the Board of Trustees.” – Student who painted wall message

Fairbairn is the vice chairman and interim head of human resources at BlackRock Fund Advisors, the second-largest stockholder in GEO Group, Inc. BlackRock owns 11.05 percent of GEO Group’s stocks, according to CNN, which amounts to more than $200 million in shares.

GEO Group owns a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement processing center in Adelanto, California, that was awarded a nine-month contract with ICE in June to detain up to 1,940 people at the facility, the Victorville Daily Press reported

Pablo Paez, a spokesperson for GEO Group, defended the company in a statement emailed to TSL.

“These divestment efforts are based on a false narrative and deliberate lies about our company,” Paez said. “We do not manage any shelters or facilities housing unaccompanied minors nor do we manage any border patrol holding facilities. The processing centers we manage on behalf of ICE are highly rated by third-party accreditation entities and provide humane residential care including 24/7 medical services, modern recreational amenities and access to legal counsel.

The student who painted the wall, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of backlash from Pitzer administration and Fairbairn, said they painted it because “as it currently stands, Pitzer isn’t really upholding their core values by having this man on the Board of Trustees.”

The student said they wanted to call attention to the issue because of Fairbairn’s elevated role in the company. They believe Fairbairn’s position gives him a responsibility to make sure the company isn’t supporting “unethical corporations.”

But BlackRock’s investment in GEO Group is more complicated than the wall’s message implies, according to BlackRock spokesperson Ed Sweeney.

“BlackRock is a diversified asset manager that invests in tens of thousands of companies for many different types of clients,” Sweeney said via email. When asked if Fairbairn would comment on the situation directly, Sweeney declined to comment on his behalf.

Nearly all BlackRock’s equity investments, including those in GEO Group, are through passive index mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, meaning that BlackRock invests in a large basket of companies selected by other people, according to Sweeney and CNN. It does not directly or individually select to invest in GEO Group or other companies.

A message on Pitzer College’s “free wall” accuses trustee Robert Fairbairn of profiting off of the private prison industry. (Donnie Denome • The Student Life)

Despite BlackRock’s diversified investments, the student that painted the wall still emphasized the connection — however small — between GEO Group and Fairbairn, saying the money Fairbairn makes is still “drawn off of how profitable GEO Group is.” 

GEO Group’s net income was $41.9 million in the second quarter of 2019, according to a press release. Asset management companies generally earn a profit by charging clients fees in the form of a flat service fee or a percentage of the client’s assets, according to Investopedia.

Fairbairn and his position in BlackRock have been a topic of fervent discussion among Pitzer first-years since the wall was painted, according to Ngaya Swai PZ ’23. 

“The thing that made everybody at Pitzer and people in the [class of 2023 group chat] … very uncomfortable and very disgusted basically is no matter how you say it, they’re making profit from the detainment [and] mistreatment of people of color, and that’s what was wrong,” Swai said.

Pitzer’s first-year class president Michelle Muturi PZ ’23 hosted an open forum Thursday night to discuss the free wall. More than 60 students attended, though there was no consensus on how to address the issue.

“I would love for this dialogue to continue,” Pitzer Dean of Students Sandra Vasquez said at the forum. “I challenge you to continue to do your research, get the facts, don’t make assumptions. … To make accusations against people can be very damaging and very tarnishing not only for those people but also for communities.”

[Robert Fairbairn] is the embodiment of Pitzer core values and love for and dedication to the college, which is why I am so proud to serve alongside him.” – Harold Brown, Board of Trustees Chair

Separate from the forum, Avalon Edwards PZ ’20, a member of 5C Prison Abolition, told TSL there needs to be a conversation at Pitzer about how the community is involved in private detention.

“That’s kind of how the prison-industrial complex works, is that it tangles up all of these stakeholders into it,” Edwards said. “So there are people who are literally constructing prisons and detention centers and those people are actively profiting from that. … But then there are people who are more tangentially involved and that includes stuff like investing that can seem very passive or can be portrayed as really passive but isn’t.” 

Pitzer Board of Trustees chair Harold Brown defended Fairbairn in a statement to TSL.

“As trustees, we cherish Pitzer College’s commitment to free speech and social justice. Robert Fairbairn has been an active member of our community for the last seven years and in that time I have come to know and respect him,” he said. “His service as a trusted colleague on the Board of Trustees has repeatedly demonstrated his integrity, loyalty and generosity. He is the embodiment of Pitzer core values and love for and dedication to the college, which is why I am so proud to serve alongside him.”

In addition to Fairbairn’s involvement, Pitzer invested nearly a third of its then-$135 million endowment with BlackRock in 2017.

The school partnered with the asset management group to launch an environmental, social and corporate governance-focused global equity index fund (ESG) that’s completely divested from fossil fuels, TSL previously reported. 

Pitzer announced at the time that it would invest $58 million of its endowment into the ESG — the entirety of the public equity portion of the school’s endowment, or money that’s invested in public markets. 

Funds like the ESG provide people and organizations that invest in them the option of investing sustainably and in line with their values, according to BlackRock’s website.

Despite this, some students still disapprove of Pitzer’s partnership with BlackRock.

“Right now, we know we don’t want to be associated with BlackRock as a company,” Swai said.

He said he and other students are researching Fairbairn and BlackRock and are planning to attend the Pitzer Board of Trustees meeting Oct. 12.

This article was last updated Sept. 25 at 11:52 p.m.

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