Protesters Want to Influence College Investment Policy

04 May 2024

Student protesters at Columbia University in New York City; the University of California, Berkeley; Brown University in Rhode Island and others are calling on their leaders to divest from Israel.

That means the students want their universities to sell any investments in Israeli businesses. Students have also started to ask their universities to divest from any U.S. company that does business in Israel. That includes companies that produce weapons and aircraft that can be used in war, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. In addition, some protesters say schools should end investments in technology companies such as Google and Airbnb that do business in Israel.

For weeks, protesters have been calling for the war between Hamas and Israel to end. The war started in 2023 after Hamas fighters invaded Israel and killed about 1200 people and took hostages. Israel's military fight against Hamas has killed more than 34,500 Palestinians, Hamas' health ministry said.

FILE - Dozens of tents were in place as part of a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Thursday, May 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Ed White)
FILE - Dozens of tents were in place as part of a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Thursday, May 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Ed White)

Protesters began calling for divestment from Israel in the months following the start of the war. At Columbia, a group calling itself Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) published demands. CUAD has demanded that the university: "Divest all of Columbia's finances, including the endowment, from companies and institutions that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine. Ensure accountability by increasing transparency around financial investments."

An endowment is a special organization that invests money for the school that creates it. The people who work for it have a legal responsibility to invest the money wisely. The gains are supposed to pay for improvements to the school grounds, new buildings and to provide financial aid for students.

Effects of recent divestment calls

Some universities are agreeing to consider changing the way they invest money in their endowments. Others are not.

On April 30 at Brown, leaders said they would discuss and vote on selling investments related to Israel's fighting in Gaza if the protesters left their encampment. The protesters agreed.

One student group at Brown, the Brown Divest Coalition, posted a message on Instagram celebrating the deal:

"This would not have been possible without the hard work of university encampments across the country whose collective power has forced university administrators to acknowledge the overwhelming support for Palestine..."

At the University of California, Berkeley, the BDS Coalition demanded: "The total divestment of the UC Berkeley Foundation and the UC General Endowment Pool from the Israeli state and from all companies profiting from the colonization of Palestine."

But on April 26, the University of California said it would not change its investments. A statement said: "The University of California has consistently opposed calls for boycott against and divestment from Israel..."

At Columbia, the place that many see as the starting point of the protests that spread across the U.S., the university offered to talk with protesters. Columbia said it would publish a list of the school's direct investments and increase how often the list is updated. The school's investing committee said it would consider proposals from students.

Past success from divestment

Students involved in recent protests point to similar calls for divestment from South Africa that started in the 1980s. At the time, South Africa was a segregated country living under what was known as apartheid. Civil rights activists point to economic pressure around the world, some of which came from universities, as a main reason for the end of the policy in the 1990s.

But some business and education experts note that university endowments are more sophisticated than they were back then.

The Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics reported that the combined market value of the 20 largest U.S. university endowments totaled more than $927 billion at the end of 2021.

Is divestment possible?

Much of the money in endowments is overseen by financial professionals who have permission to buy and sell stocks or groups of stocks.

Because of this, it can be difficult to identify a school's involvement with a company. Georges Dyer is executive director and cofounder of the Intentional Endowments Network.

"It's not as simple as some people think — maybe it's just selling some stocks at a certain company," Dyer said.

Financial experts also note that a small number of universities removing their investments in a few large companies such as Boeing or Microsoft will not make much difference.

Todd Ely is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado, Denver. He said some schools likely have employed financial companies to supervise their investments and "colleges and universities have fairly limited discretion in the"

Will calls for divestment end the war?

Dany Bahar and Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. have done research on divestment. They noted that divestment movements have had little effect on the Israeli economy.

In their writing, they note that only official restrictions, or sanctions, by the United States, would produce economic pressure to change Israeli policy. But that is not likely to happen because of U.S. support for Israel.

Just on Thursday, President Joe Biden talked about his support for the protesters' right to express themselves, but said the U.S. does not plan to end its support for Israel's fight against Hamas.

I'm Jill Robbins. And I'm Dan Friedell.

VOA's Rob Garver wrote this story. Dan Friedell adapted it for Learning English and included material from the Associated Press.


Words in This Story

divest –v. to sell things of value for a reason

endowment –n. a legal structure designed to supervise and grow things of value for the gain of the group or organization that organized it or for a cause

apartheid –n. a system of keeping one group of people separate from another

transparency –n. the idea that things should be open and clear to everyone

consistently –adv. to take place most of the time, regularly

sophisticated –adj. complex and involving much specialized knowledge

discretion –n. the ability to choose some course of action rather than have it decided by a rule or requirement that already exists