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from the Corporate Accountability Lab
By Mark Lewis Taylor
After considerable efforts that I detail below I now believe that Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) needs a new Chairperson of its Board of Trustees. We need one who will be proactive in representing our community’s goals of investment transparency and targeted divestment, so to end profits that come, specifically and directly, to PTS from any major investments it may have in the “targeted” industries of prison, military, and fossil-fuel companies.
Note to readers: feel free to read only these opening four paragraphs, and then skip to the short “Conclusion” at the end of this essay. But please know that my position is best understood only after reading this post in its entirety. Understanding will also mean checking some of the links and citations I provide. If I here write at length – too long and too belabored for some – it is because I need to express my accountability to my own principles and beliefs, but also to the movements and practices of former and current students who today are key participants in social movements for justice and peace.
I also take the positions I do out of deep respect for this institution. The position that Mr. Michael Fisch holds, Chair of the PTS Board of Trustees, is one of leadership for a community that has many positive features. We are a place where students often gain their first exposure to the classics of Christian faith and often of other religious traditions. Students from the U.S. and abroad gain skills and new languages for creative and critical understandings of those traditions. The adventures of teaching and learning are alive here. At our best, students not only get credentials for future work, they also learn to think deeply about faith and public witness, able to question even the ecclesial worlds of credentialed professionals. The seminary has appointed new young scholars that make this faculty stronger than ever. We are also a very human community where lifelong friendships are forged. We support one another when family members die. As a faculty we have grieved together, this year, the loss of a young ground-breaking scholar, beloved teacher, and dear faculty colleague. This year, too, we celebrate now the sparkling and transformative leadership provided by our new president, Dr. Jonathan Walton. President Walton already has imparted vision and principled practices that guide our institution in new and valuable directions.
Given my respect for this community, then, I have had to develop my thinking here carefully. On the topic of divestment, I have been a signer and supporter, from its beginnings, of a 2021 Call by our campus’s Students for Peace and Justice (SPJ) and of its ongoing work for investment transparency and targeted divestment. If now, with this essay, I also add my name to another petition, one that was drafted and signed in February 2023 by mostly alums of PTS, I do so not because I think its centerpiece strategy of calling for “the immediate removal” of current Board Chair Michael Fisch should be the main strategy of our campaigns going forward. I do so, mainly, because despite my attempts to engage Mr. Fisch constructively on these issues, he in my opinion seems unsupportive of any of the specific goals of student or alum campaigns for targeted divestments.
“. . . despite my attempts to engage Mr. Fisch constructively on these issues, he in my opinion seems unsupportive of any of the specific goals of student or alum campaigns for targeted divestments.”
At most, Mr. Fisch seems to support vague language about “refining our ethical criteria to ensure they align with our institutional mission and shared ethical values.” Over the past ten months of intense discussion of these matters, I have seen nothing in Mr. Fisch’s statements that suggests he feels any tension between those “ethical values” and PTS’s specific investments in U.S. prisons, military, and fossil-fuel industries.
INTRODUCTION – WHY I ‘UNSIGNED’ THE ALUM PETITION
The alums’ February petition gave as its primary reason for demanding Fisch’s removal that as CEO of American Securities LLC he is owner and partner with ViaPath Technologies (formerly Global Tel Link), one of the largest telecommunications companies that has often profited from the exorbitant fees charged to prisoners and their families. This creates an onerous struggle for prisoners as they try to keep in touch with their families. To date, activists have secured some government regulation of phone fees, with a few states now making phone calls free to prisoners. Still, telecom companies like ViaPath are adept at continuing their profiteering from prisoners by diversifying into less regulated markets – for example, changing from phone profiteering to earnings made from eMessaging, videos, digital music tablets and more. All my letters to a Pennsylvania prisoner – to take a more specific example of a new profit-making venture – are now rerouted to a mail processing center, Smart Communications (down in Florida!), where photocopies of my letters are made. Only the photocopied letter goes back to the prisoner in Pennsylvania. A letter from Princeton to upstate Pennsylvania thus takes about two weeks. His grandchildren’s drawings also arrive to him in only photocopy form – all this for elongating a profit-making chain.
“companies like ViaPath are adept at continuing their profiteering from prisoners by diversifying into less regulated markets”
I first signed the petition for Michael Fisch’s removal out of my awareness of this exploitative process, and my felt solidarity with the alums whom I know well and respect for the work many of them do with prisoners and families. They are often engaged in chaplain work, pastoral care, counseling, teaching , social services, and public policy. But for reasons given below, I soon asked for my name to be removed from the petition. I “unsigned” for the following four reasons.
because as a participant in the seminary community and as a full professor I am one who benefits from the institution that the Board Chair oversees. My beneficiary status and a need to acknowledge my own complicity in the system I decry, was my most important reason for unsigning. I realized that I had not fulfilled what I felt was a moral obligation before signing, namely, to communicate with Fisch – directly and in person – about my objections to his corporate profit-making from imprisoning people.
” . . . I had not fulfilled what I felt was a moral obligation before signing, namely, to communicate with Fisch – directly and in person – about my objections to his corporate profit-making from imprisoning people.”
ViaPath and Fisch not only profit from prisoner family payments for telecom services, they also profit by providing many other prison maintenance technologies. Moreover, I also needed to discuss with Mr. Fisch my critique of his support for the global political and militant think tank, The Atlantic Council, on which Fisch serves as one of its Board members and to which his firm of American Securities contributes.
because as a scholar I had not done my own research into Michael Fisch’s investments and corporate profile, and further reflection on the petition left me sensing that it did not sufficiently educate the public or my campus about Fisch’s links to ViaPath and how he relates to the corporate strata more broadly.
because I have reservations about a strategy that targets one easily replaceable “villain” of the corporate governing class, when in fact many, if not most – though not all – of our Board members come from that same class (of corporate executives, private equity fund investors and bankers, government, and military and surveillance sectors of US corporate strata).
because I wanted to reinvigorate my long years of work with faculty and students (particularly with SPJ and its Call for transparency and targeted divestment). I wished to work more with all these on campus to achieve greater community consensus about Fisch, his investments as well as with our broader campaigns for investment transparency and divestment.
TEN MONTHS OF WORK ON PTS INVESTMENTS ISSUES
I here summarize the further work I have done over the last months on the four reasons given above. The summary below clarifies why and how I now am re-entering my name onto the alums’ petition.
1 On Researching Michael Fisch
I have now done all the research I can on Fisch’s investments and corporate profile and have become only more deeply concerned about his investments in ViaPath technologies, as well as his service to and work in U.S.-led institutions of global political economy and imperial military policy. I do not claim to have been exhaustive in this research. Nor have I been allowed to engage Mr. Fisch in the sustained dialogue I would prefer.
The best study I know of American Securities’ profit-making off of ViaPath, published by Private Equity Stake Holders Project (PESP), shows his firm’s long-term profiting from ViaPath’s annual earnings. These were often exorbitant, even though the rates have often decreased recently and in some settings. Still, American Securities’ profits from ViaPath continue. Bloomberg, for example, reports ongoing increases in American Securities’ earnings of nearly $158 million from ViaPath in the most recent quarter. This represents an increase of 7.7% over the previous quarter.
“The best study I know of American Securities’ profit-making off of ViaPath, published by Private Equity Stake Holders Project (PESP) . . . “
While owning ViaPath/Global Tel Link since 2011 – according to the same PESP report – American Securities was also invested in providing technology that improperly recorded attorney-client calls. PESP also reports that American Securities was implicated in a Mississippi bribery scheme of 2011 to 2014. American Securities’ GTL settled that case in 2020 by making a payment of $2.5 million dollars. Reportedly, no acknowledgment of wrongdoing was made, nor comment given. I sent the PESP report to Mr. Fisch. He did not comment on these matters in that report, nor on the PESP report at all.
I am just as concerned, however, by Mr. Fisch’s seemingly uncritical support of U.S. political, economic, and military establishments. Fisch has served (maybe still serves) on the Board of the Atlantic Council, a think tank devoted to keeping global power in the hands of predominantly Atlantic North planners, with many of its Board members having been at the forefront of leading U.S. wars and profiting from them. The Atlantic Council recently gave tribute to Henry Kissinger, hailing him as “brilliant strategist and consummate Atlanticist.” Kissinger has been shown to be a consummate planner of unjust wars, overt and covert, in defense of US and global North geopolitics (see historian Greg Grandin’s book, Kissinger’s Shadow). On the case for prosecuting Kissinger as “war criminal,” see human rights attorney and prosecutor, Reed Brody of the International Commission of Jurists.
“I am just as concerned, however, by Mr. Fisch’s seemingly uncritical support of U.S. political, economic, and military establishments.”
In the area of international affairs, Kissinger and The Atlantic Council are about as far away as one can get from the values of the seminary’s mission. Fisch’s firm, American Securities, has donated heavily to the Atlantic Council ($1 million in 2021). For Mr. Fisch’s own perspectives on global politics, I recommend his video interview given to Atlantic Council President and CEO, Fred Kempe.
American Securities also owns and runs partner companies that are involved in military industries (for example, Amentum, “No. 1 Military Friendly Employer”) as well as fossil fuel connected industries (e.g. Ulterra Drilling Technologies). More recently, and not surprisingly, in the Council’s analyses of Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza in Palestine, there is little or no problematizing of U.S. military aid to Israel, now $3.8 billion annually, plus the new $14.4 billion that President Biden now requests for Israel since the October 7 Hamas atrocities. In one prominent essay at the Atlantic Council’s website, which analyzes Israel’s future options in Gaza, the author does not once mention the cost paid by Gazan citizens and residents, with now over 15,000 killed, over half of these being women and children. Over 1.8 million – read that slowly – have had to flee their homes in the 57 days since Israel’s bombing began.
” In one prominent essay at the Atlantic Council’s website, which analyzes Israel’s future options in Gaza, the author does not once mention the cost paid by Gazan citizens and residents, with now over 15,000 killed, . . . “
The Atlantic Council’s powerful representatives of the North may omit mention of this dispossession and violence, but many “won’t forget” nor should the leadership of a theological institution.
In short, Fisch’s private equity firm, American Securities LLC, continues to profit not only from its partnering in and owning of prison technology companies. His firm and his executive profile are embedded in a global establishment supporting U.S. military, political and cultural exploitation of various vulnerable populations – of the earth itself.
2 On Appealing Personally to Michael Fisch
Over the summer I wrote a long letter directly to Mr. Fisch detailing all the concerns mentioned above and more. I cited for him the studies that confirmed his profiting from exorbitant fees to prisoners and their families. I cited and presented to him letters written by others over the years (from Color of Change and Prison Legal News), confronting him about the seeming impropriety of his investments in ViaPath. I detailed the kinds of organizing that I was undertaking on campus with SPJ and some faculty, pressing for investment transparency and divestment from prison, military, and fossil-fuel industries.
Mr. Fisch does not deny that he and his firm profit from ViaPath. He justifies it because ViaPath is the largest provider of free telecommunications services to prisoners, especially as they seek education and re-entry services. The high fees to prisoners and families, he claims, are set not by ViaPath or by his firm, but by local, state, and federal prisons and jails. He claims to support the lowering of charges, even to the point that telecommunication services are provided free to prisoners in some states.
“He claims to support the lowering of charges, even to the point that telecommunication services are provided free to prisoners in some states.”
Still, Mr. Fisch profits from his firm’s financial structuring and partnering with ViaPath. He also remained silent about the issue of telecom companies diversifying to enhance profits from other unregulated telecom services. I see no signs that Mr. Fisch is open to divesting from any of this.
Moreover, Mr. Fisch chose not to address any of my concerns with his investments in and connections to the US military or fossil-fuel industries, like Aumenta and Ulterra Drilling Technologies. That he profits from these as well as the prison industry I find morally objectionable. It is to profit from the explicit planning and organization of technology that confines bodies and deals destruction to vulnerable peoples here in the U.S. and abroad. I cannot interpret this kind of profiting as aligning with our institution’s mission statement.
As I make these judgments, I want to acknowledge something that I believe was insufficiently stressed in the alum petition, the dependency of most of us at PTS upon our school’s financial largesse. I grant that my own faculty salary, research funds and pension at PTS – as well as the financial support received by students and graduates of this school – are in part generated out of the complex tangle of our economy’s investment complex. I am complicit in that web of entanglements, a web that often pulls me into spheres of profit-making by the very industries that I am criticizing.
” . . . it is another, deeper and more disturbing moral compromise, when we permit ourselves to profit directly from companies on the frontline of building and maintaining prison institutions, U.S. military war-making technologies, or fossil-fuel extraction industries.”
Nevertheless, I maintain that it is another, deeper and more disturbing moral compromise, when we permit ourselves to profit directly from companies on the frontline of building and maintaining prison institutions, U.S. military war-making technologies, or fossil-fuel extraction industries. In his responses to me in the one letter he wrote back to me over the summer, Mr. Fisch expressed no sense of moral ambiguity about such investments. Mr. Fisch suspected that his letter to me would not allay my concerns. He was right.
Mr. Fisch and the Executive Committee of the Board have also claimed that they share with me a shared Christian faith and commitment to the church and to the mission of the seminary. Unfortunately, that shared faith exists between us only in the most abstract way. Overlooked is my faith commitment’s relation to a political position, one theoretically and theologically developed over decades and I believe consistent with key sections of PTS’s mission statement. I hold that the starting point of any such faith begins and is sustained by our belonging to the Palestinian Jew, Jesus of Nazareth whose message of love was rooted in and culminated in a life critically and creatively set against the hierarchies and violence of imperial power. Many narratives of our tradition show Jesus as embodying a prophetic critique of religious elites who conspire with empire against oppressed and marginalized peoples. The SPJ document calling for transparency and investments got it right, when citing me in one of my publications: “To be a follower of the executed Jesus of Nazareth is to venture down a road without having a place secured by systems of imperial control.”
Mr. Fisch’s inability to display even moral ambiguity about investments that secure systems of control by US empire, places his mode of Christian faith in tension with mine. I believe those investments contravene the best interests of a theological institution that hearkens to the witness of a Jesus who manifested a life that indirectly, and sometimes directly, challenged the political and religious organization of wealth and power in his day. His death and torture on a Roman cross marked the opposition that imperial forces had toward him. (The Executed God, chapter 3).
I stated to Mr. Fisch my willingness to come into New York City offices for a visit on any of these matters. He declined, indicating that we should keep our conversations within the conduits of the school’s official governance patterns.
” . . . Mr. Fisch could forge a very different profile, with a more prophetic voice for economic and political justice.”
Unfortunately, while I am committed to using and improving those channels, limiting our interactive work to them will slow down communication in a way that does not allow us to address the already long-delayed structural violence at work in the present political moment. I lament that we could not have had a direct face-to-face visit. Conceivably, in both prison corporate worlds and in the arenas of global economic and military policy, Mr. Fisch’s connections might allow him to forge a very different profile, one with a more prophetic voice for economic and political justice. Alas, I do not see Mr. Fisch as proactive in forging that alternative profile, either for himself or our institution.
3 On the Problematic Focus on Only Our Board Chair
I continue to have reservations about the alum petition’s strategy of targeting, first and primarily, the single figure of Michael Fisch. He could easily be replaced by another CEO of similar ideology. Indeed, he is only one member of the corporate governing class from which are drawn many of our board members. He is also surrounded on our board by other corporate figures who have their own connections to U.S. military cultures.
What is most disturbing is not simply that such Board members belong to a U.S. governing, corporate class. (Again, I acknowledge my own problematic relation to this class.) It is more that from our board members I have not sensed even a smidgen of felt moral ambiguity or “crisis of conscience” about the matters raised in the petitions.
” . . . from our board members I have not sensed even a smidgen of felt moral ambiguity or “crisis of conscience” about the matters raised in the petitions.”
There is certainly from the board of trustees no support – yet articulated to us, anyway – about even the possibility of divesting from prison, military, and fossil fuel industries. It has not even been put up for discussion. We only get vague talk about aligning investments with mission. While Fisch’s and his Executive Board’s responses to us mention PTS’s “institutional values” and “shared values,” they completely ignore how both SPJ’s Call and the Alum Petition are intentional about reading the PTS mission statement through the lens of our school’s anti-slavery theological commitment. Doing this kind of reading is not just one political option. This commitment has been announced as part of PTS’s practice of mission, now integral to our curriculum, common life and purpose. Without that commitment, it is no wonder that there is silence, no sense of crisis, around possible investments in prisons, military and fossil fuel industries – these institutions of dispossession amid today’s “afterlife of slavery.”
Mr. Fisch also decided not to engage me at all about another matter raised in my letter to him over the summer: the general problem of private equity firms in current corporate culture. These firms – seemingly also Mr. Fisch’s American Securities private equity firm with its reported revenue at $46 billion – have come under considerable recent criticism for their exploitation of stakeholders. See two 2023 books documenting this: Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner, These Are the Plunderers: How Private Equity Runs – and Wrecks America, and another by federal prosecutor in antitrust law, Brendan Ballou’s Plunder: Private Equity’s Plan to Pillage America. What is at stake is clarified by one historian of corporate finance in a long review article of both books, tellingly entitled “Conspicuous Destruction.”
So, it is not so much that I want to villainize one “bad” member of the Board. It is more that in his current role as Board chair, I consider Mr. Fisch’s avoidance of all these significant problem issues, raised with him by me in July, as not facilitating a path forward on these urgent issues.
Again, I do not entertain extravagant goals of achieving for PTS some “moral purity” in all our dealings with the investor class. Nor do I have utopian expectations that believe PTS could, by its divestments, unleash a massive transformation of an unjust economy.
“I do not entertain extravagant goals of achieving for PTS some “moral purity” in all our dealings with the investor class.”
But our investments should express our institution’s thoughtful, moral criticism of the cultures and practices of military, prison, and fossil-fuel profit-making. The world that needs to be born is not one that we can make by being directly and often uncritically beholden to the set of profit-making and war-making powers that Mr. Fisch represents.
4 On My Reinvigorated Work with Faculty and Students
The past ten months’ work on these issues – with students, faculty, administrators, and the Board – has been constant. We have engaged these matters in multiple ways:
“We have engaged these matters in multiple ways: . . . “
♦ I and other faculty drew closer to SPJ to support its calls for transparency and targeted investment.
♦ I strove to stay in communication with the alum petition drafters to understand better their position and goals.
♦ I hosted SPJ organizers, in one of my Spring 2023 courses, together with alum drafters of the petition which had called for Fisch’s ‘immediate removal.’
♦ Faculty gathered 20 of its members, for two special “Collegium” meetings to discuss the goals for transparency and divestment. We also constituted a 5-member faculty Taskforce in mid-Spring 2023 to request a special meeting with the board about these matters and recommended to the board several options for making good-faith response to the community.
♦ I made a special visit to a gathering of Board of Trustees members, to deliver my written, personal appeal that faculty be included in deliberations, and asking for a response to our concerns from the Board.
♦ I was a faculty presence at an SPJ vigil of a Board of Trustees meeting in the Wright Library, again calling for transparency and targeted divestments.
♦ An SPJ student, at her own initiative placed a copy of the SPJ Call into the hands of Mr. Fisch as she received her diploma at the 2023 May commencement.
In response to all this the Board’s response has been vague and minimal, only taking these steps:
” . . . the Board’s response has been vague and minimal, only taking these steps: . . .”
♦ The faculty Taskforce received from the Board after its May meeting a short, one-paragraph note by email. It was a general “we hear you” note, with an affirmation that “we take these matters seriously” and generally are working on our requests.
♦ The Board also reported out in May that it had created a new “Organizational Development Committee” designed “to provide feedback on trustee performance” and for “strengthening board governance and increased transparency.”
♦ Mr. Fisch wrote me back one letter, mentioned above, which did not address my most serious concerns about investments in prison, military, and fossil-fuel companies.
♦ After the October 2023 meetings on campus the Board reported out that the Trustees voted for PTS to “become a member of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility,” emphasizing that PTS is the first theological institution to do so. I appreciated these new moves, but there to date is no statement about what this means for transparency and divestment.
♦ The trustees at that same October Board meeting also decided it would “share the PC(USA) investment guidelines and proxy voting guidelines annually with all our investment partners.” Such “sharing guidelines with investment partners,” though, means nothing without stating also how such “sharing” enacts new policy or involves some sort of commitment by our institution.
I know the Board sees itself as having made important progress, and promises still more developments on the investments issue. I recognize that viewpoint of the Board. Overall, though, the major problem I have with current Board leadership is that there is nothing said about the requests of both petitions, namely, that PTS should begin what alums termed a “deep reckoning” with its involvements in prison, military, and fossil-fuel industries. I am left to conclude that the Board, at least as a group, can muster no support for such a reckoning, and does not even care to reach out and discuss – nor even mention – these specific industries of student and alum concern. This I see as a failure of leadership, at the very least.
CONCLUSION – TOWARD NEW BOARD LEADERSHIP
I am left to reiterate three unanswered questions that I put to Mr. Fisch in my July letter to him: “Does the Board really have nothing more to say beyond its general boiler plate language? Can you offer nothing in the way of a direct address of the substantive matters of PTS’s investments and apparent support for the corporate power of prison, military, and fossil-fuel industries? Are these issues even on your radar?”
I can only conclude that the Board, under Mr. Fisch’s leadership, has no intention of responding in a substantive way to these questions. We need alternative leadership. That means we need a Board chair who knows that PTS must move into the 21st century with a clear disavowal of, and divestment from, direct investment in prison, military, and fossil-fuel industries. Especially with a figure as influential as Mr. Fisch, I could imagine many conversations with him about how to practically challenge prison, military and fossil-fuel corporate policies, and also the global political agendas of The Atlantic Council.
” . . . we need a Board chair who knows that PTS must move into the 21st century with a clear disavowal of, and divestment from, direct investment in prison, military, and fossil-fuel industries.”
I would still welcome some word from Mr. Fisch, assuring me that he shares my assessment of how problematic it is to be involved in all these industries and the necessity of challenging them. But I do not expect that call. I don’t think his mind or heart incline in that direction. I wish he would prove me wrong.
The alum petition demanded Mr. Fisch’s “immediate removal.” I interpret and affirm this demand as a cry and lament, one expressive of the pain of the imprisoned poor and their families with whom many of us work. On my own, of course, I as faculty cannot implement a demand for removal. Nor, can we as a faculty collective do so. However, having organized as we faculty have over the last ten months, we can now work together with students, faculty, administration and maybe some Board members for the transformative justice needed. I can sign the alum petition and support the rage and the lament of the vulnerable who are behind bars in prison America, beneath US bombs, on the earth itself now threatened by hard-charging fossil-fuel industrialists. And I can and will organize with both SPJ and the drafters of the alum petition in whatever ways I can. So, given the failures of the Board to respond with adequacy to the needs of our era, which would mean challenging these problematic industries, I must respectfully call on Mr. Fisch to step aside. I call upon the Board to then find a Chairperson who can be proactive in expressing – implementing without delay – the values of our campaigns for transparency and targeted divestments from the corporate powers that threaten the most vulnerable in our society, and ultimately threaten too the lives of all humanity and the earth.