Columbia student protesters demand divestment. This is what universities have gotten away with in the past

Columbia student protesters demand divestment. This is what universities have gotten away with in the past

One of the core demands over the past week by a pro-Palestinian student group at Columbia University has been for the school to divest investment funds from what they describe as companies profiting from Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

Columbia’s endowment is valued at $13.6 billion and is managed by a university-owned investment firm.

The demands from Columbia University Apartheid Divest — the coalition of student groups behind the movement — include, among other things, divesting endowment funds from several arms manufacturers and technology companies that do business with the Israeli government. The group has described the companies as profiting “from Israeli apartheid, genocide, and military occupation of Palestine.” Israel denies the accusation of genocide.

This is not the first time such a claim has been made. Columbia has a history of student activism, from the now-famous 1968 student occupation of several campus buildings to raise awareness of the Vietnam War, to hunger strikes over issues such as the university’s expansion into Upper Manhattan. And protesting students also have a history of pushing Columbia to divest in a different movement.

In 2000, the university established an advisory committee on socially responsible investments, comprised of students, faculty and alumni, to provide feedback to Columbia’s endowment investment manager. The group has a formal process for submitting disposal proposals.

Columbia University Apartheid Divest submitted a formal proposal to the committee to withdraw Israel-related investments in December, which has yet to come to fruition. Students at Columbia College, the university’s undergraduate school, voted to support the proposed divestment last week.

And students continue to push for the university to adopt the proposal.

“We are building on the legacy of decades of students calling for freedom, for liberation, for equality and to end the system of apartheid around the world … for all oppressed people,” Columbia student organizer Catherine Elias told CNN earlier this week.

Lead the South African divestment movement across the country
Currently, Columbia lists five areas in which it avoids investing: tobacco, private prison operations, thermal coal, Sudan and fossil fuels — all decisions made in the past decade. But the history of school divestment goes back much further.

In the 1980s, a group of Columbia students began calling on the school to sever financial ties with companies doing business in South Africa on the basis of its apartheid racial segregation.

Daniel Armstrong, who founded the Coalition for a Free South Africa as a Columbia student in the early 1980s and now owns a mentoring business in Los Angeles, said the effort began with pamphlets and guest speakers but grew in the following years.

Students are “starting to see that this is not a crazy position to be in,” Armstrong told CNN. “Then our student newspaper started supporting it, which I think was a big step as far as legitimizing the demand for divestment.”

In 1983, Columbia’s student Senate passed a measure to divest with near-unanimous support, but university trustees said no.

In April 1985, students led a three-week student demonstration against Columbia’s investment in South Africa, the New York Times reported at the time. The demonstration involved about 150 students blocking the entrance to the campus building.

A few months after the protest, trustees voted to sell most of Columbia’s shares in American companies doing business in South Africa. That includes a laundry list of investments in well-known companies including American Express, Chevron, Ford and Coca-Cola, among others, which together amount to $39 million in stocks and about 4% of Columbia’s total portfolio, the New York Times reported.

Columbia was the first Ivy League university to break away from South Africa, and various other colleges followed suit, including the University of California, Berkeley, as well as Johns Hopkins University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Apartheid South Africa ended in the early 1990s.

‘Symbols have power’
Since then, student activists have successfully pushed Columbia to break away from several other areas.

In 2015, Columbia became the first US university to divest from a private prison company after a year-long campaign by student activists raised concerns about human rights abuses. The university sold its shares in G4S, the world’s largest private security firm, and Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the United States.

In 2019, a group of Columbia students affiliated with the climate activist organization Extinction Rebellion launched a week-long hunger strike in the library to encourage the university to go beyond an initial commitment to divest from thermal coal and withdraw funds from all fossil fuels.

Despite some pushback from university leaders in the following months, the group presented a formal divestment proposal to the socially responsible investment committee.

“People have criticized (the movement) for using the divestment goal because it’s a symbolic goal and if the university divests then other people will just buy the same shares,” said Savannah Pearson, who participated in the 2019 hunger strike as an undergraduate student. in Columbia. But, he said, “symbols have a lot of power … and they can inspire other schools to do the same.”

The fossil fuel divestment proposal was approved by Columbia’s Board of Trustees in early 2021. The policy includes, among other things, a commitment not to invest in “companies whose primary business is the exploration and production of fossil fuels.” Columbia’s announcement was followed by student advocacy, and eventually similar commitments, at other Ivy League universities.

“A small group of students can change an institution like Columbia University, but they can’t do it without the support and backing of the broader community,” said Michael Cusack, who as a graduate student at Columbia Teachers College in 2019 helped to author the group’s proposal.

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