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Belmont students call for Damon Hininger’s removal from Board of Trustees

An online petition with more than 1,100 signatures is calling for the removal of CoreCivic President and CEO Damon Hininger from Belmont University’s Board of Trustees because of CoreCivic’s work with detained immigrant families.

CoreCivic is a Nashville-based company and the largest owner of “partnership correctional, detention and residential reentry facilities” in the U.S., according to the company’s website.

Some Belmont students and other individuals throughout Nashville say CoreCivic is an unethical company because it profits from incarceration and immigrant detention, according to a Facebook post from Women’s March – Power Together Tennessee. These individuals want Hininger removed from Belmont’s Board of Trustees.

“It has recently come to my attention that Damon Hininger, a member of the Belmont Board of Trustees and a former Massey Award recipient, is not someone I believe we want associated with Belmont University,” said Sarah Evans, a Belmont student who created the petition for Hininger’s removal.

CoreCivic’s Director of Public Affairs Amanda Gilchrist offered a statement to the Vision on behalf of Hinninger and the company. Hininger declined to comment further.

“CoreCivic recognizes that immigration is one of the most complex and personal issues that our country deals with. In this instance, our valued but limited role has helped address a humanitarian crisis,” Gilchrist said. “Our responsibility is to care for each person respectfully and humanely while they receive the legal due process that they are entitled to.”

In comments from supporters of Evans’ petition, a common concern was the way CoreCivic directly profits from the increase in immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new zero-tolerance policy toward illegal immigration. Then on June 20, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the separation of detained immigrant children from their parents, creating an extra need for detention centers for whole families.

CoreCivic operates one of those family detention centers in Dilley, Texas. The facility was built in partnership with ICE in 2014, specifically for the purpose of housing detained mothers and children.

It includes classrooms, playrooms and offices where parents can meet with attorneys, Gilchrist said.

“ICE has seen meaningful increases in not only the numbers, but also the dollars appropriated for increased utilization within their system,” Hininger said at the REITweek Investor conference in June. “So what we’ve described here recently to investors is probably the most robust kind of sales environment we’ve seen in probably 10 years, not only on the federal side with the dynamics with ICE and U.S. Marshals, but also with these activities on the state side.”

Hininger, who received his MBA from the Jack C. Massey Graduate School of Business in 2000, has remained connected with Belmont ever since. He serves on the university’s Board of Trustees and on the Massey Advisory Board for the School of Business.

Hininger’s involvement at Belmont has been a source of concern for some students in the past because of his work at CoreCivic.

One of those students was Jones Kolbinsky, who met with Belmont President Dr. Robert Fisher in the spring and talked to him about his reservations.

“I’m graduating in less than a year, and I want to be able to say to people in 20 or 30 years that I love Belmont and I’m proud to have graduated there, but this throws all sorts of conflicts of interest into the equation,” Kolbinsky said in an interview.

Kolbinsky felt his concerns were heard and respected, but he didn’t see any changes as a result, he said.

A few months later, Evans learned about CoreCivic’s work while reading about the End Family Detention March in Nashville — which focused on protesting Hininger’s involvement at Belmont and in Nashville as a whole. She decided she wanted to do something more than just meet with Belmont’s administration on her own.

“More often than not, I am proud to be a student of Belmont University. However, after learning that we are and plan to continue our involvement with CoreCivic, I find it harder to call myself a ‘proud student,’” Evans said.

On June 29, Evans started the petition to remove Hininger from Belmont’s Board of Trust. As of publication, it had received 1,198 virtual signatures on the website.

“As individuals associated with Belmont University and the Nashville community, we deserve a say in who represents our school, and Mr. Hininger clearly does not represent the values that our school claims to embody,” Evans wrote in the petition.

The university commented on the petition in a brief statement to the Vision.

“We respect all individuals’ rights to express themselves and to share their concerns. Damon Hininger is a Belmont alumnus and a valued and appreciated member of the University’s Board of Trustees,” according to the statement from Belmont.

As of publication, Evans had not yet spoken to the Board of Trustees or any members of the Belmont administration.

Evans doesn’t think CoreCivic’s work aligns with Belmont’s values, so she hopes the university will cut ties with the company completely, she said.

“I believe that the family separation and retention policies in place are inhumane and unjust,” she said. “By standing behind Mr. Hininger, Belmont University is passively supporting an organization that is profiteering off a humanitarian crisis.”

Though CoreCivic does house detained families, the company does not enforce immigration law, Gilchrist said in her statement.

 “We have a long-standing, zero-tolerance policy not to advocate for or against any legislation that serves as the basis for – or determines the duration of – an individual’s detention. We do not enforce immigration laws, arrest anyone who may be in violation of immigration laws or have any say whatsoever in an individual’s deportation or release,” she said.

CoreCivic facilities do not hold unaccompanied minors, either.

Going forward, Evans plans to take the petition and meet with Fisher and take whatever steps she can to get Hininger removed from Belmont’s Board of Trustees.

“In addition to this, I hope that this petition shows other people in power that they are not invincible, and that we are paying attention to their actions,” Evans said.

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