Campus protesters are demanding universities divest from Israel. Here's what that means.

Ending individual investments is often not a straightforward matter.

May 3, 2024, 5:34 PM

Protests calling for colleges and universities to divest funds from Israeli military and governmental operations in Gaza, or companies they claim benefit from it, have continued to spread on campuses across the country, including Yale University, New York University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and more.

Some universities have declined to divest, while others have said they will have conversations with student protesters about investment concerns as they try to quell growing protests.

Many universities have a long history of divesting – that is, removing one's funds from an asset, in essence reversing a previous investment – in companies that have connections to or otherwise support fraught political issues, such as genocide, apartheid and other practices.

But what might divestment actually look like for universities when it comes to Israel and its military?

Posters hang near tents at the University of Southern California (USC) during a protest in support of Palestinians in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Los Angeles, on April 27, 2024.
Aude Guerrucci/Reuters

University endowments and what divestment means

An endowment is a bucket of investments used by a university to generate income and fund expenses such as scholarships, academic activities and building construction. Typically, universities spend a modest percentage of the returns each year to supplement other revenue, while reserving the rest for long-term costs.

"You can think of an endowment as a savings account or retirement fund, but for a university," Brian Galle, a law professor at Georgetown University who studies nonprofit organizations, told ABC News.

Over the past 50 years, many top universities have undertaken aggressive investment strategies for their endowments, delivering massive returns and ballooning the size of such funds, Bruce Kimball, emeritus professor of philosophy and history of education at The Ohio State University, told ABC News.

Harvard University, for example, boasts an endowment of more than $50 billion, making it the largest university endowment in the U.S.

University endowments are typically invested in vehicles that run the gamut from private equity to mutual funds to real estate, Galle said.

However, a given university's specific investments are often unknown, since most schools are not required to disclose them, experts said. That confidentiality poses a challenge for protesters seeking to affect the investments, since they may find it difficult to determine where a university's endowment is invested and, by extension, which specific investments they may find objectionable and want a university to reconsider.

Calls for divestment for political reasons are also complicated by the nature of university endowments, experts told ABC News. Since endowments often seek a balance of assets concentrated in particular sectors, it can be difficult to remove a certain type of asset without requiring a wider adjustment.

Because of these realities, many groups are calling both for transparency regarding where the school's money is going, and divestment from companies or institutions that profit from what some protesters are calling "genocide" in Gaza. This could include Israeli weapons manufacturers and military defense contractors.

Meanwhile, others have made broader calls for divestment from companies more generally connected to Israel, such as tech firms that sell services to the Israeli government, as well as Israeli goods manufacturers. Academic or research-based ties to Israel have also drawn attention from some divestment campaigns.

Broadly, protesters insist that any investment that politically or financially supports Israel's war in Gaza is unacceptable.

Some universities, like Ohio State University, say they cannot meet the protesters demands because of local laws that restrict state agencies from working with or funding companies and groups that are boycotting or stand in opposition to Israel. Similar laws also exist in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, and other states.

PHOTO: People listen to a speaker at a pro-Palestinian encampment, at Columbia University, on April 28, 2024, in New York.
People listen to a speaker at a pro-Palestinian encampment, advocating for financial disclosure and divestment from all companies tied to Israel and calling for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza, at Columbia University, on April 28, 2024, in New York.
Andres Kudacki/AP

"Pursuant to Ohio state law, state entities cannot divest interests in Israel," said Ohio State University in an online announcement. "Ohio Revised Code Section 9.76 prohibits the university from divesting any interests in Israel and prohibits adopting or adhering to a policy that requires divestment from Israel or with persons or entities associated with it."

Supporters of these laws say they combat religious discrimination against Jewish people and national-origin discrimination against Israelis. Critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, allege that such laws are "designed to discriminate against disfavored political expression."

Past investment changes based on geopolitical, other causes

Universities over the years have changed their investments based on geopolitical and other considerations.

In 2022, many U.S. universities – among them the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Colorado, Yale University, and Arizona's three public universities – cut ties with Russian assets and pulled millions from the country's investments in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In a special meeting, the Arizona Board of Regents announced that it had instructed the presidents of Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Arizona to withdraw from any investments in Russian assets and to exclude Russian assets from the board's retirement plan.

"The Arizona Board of Regents condemns in the strongest possible terms Vladimir Putin's illegal invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine and apparent targeting of civilian populations, with one million refugees already in its wake," said ABOR Chair Lyndel Manson.

The statement continued, "With today's action, the board repudiates Putin's aggression and ensures Arizona's public university enterprise divests of any Russian assets."

The University of Colorado also cut ties, noting that the millions of dollars in publicly traded Russian companies and mutual funds are "negligible."

"Like so many others, we have watched in horror as this invasion has brought senseless violence and aggression to the region," said CU President Todd Saliman in the statement. "We are looking for ways to show our support for the people of Ukraine and believe that cutting our investments is the right thing to do."

Thousands of people rally at an encampment for Palestine set up by George Washington University students in conjunction with other DC-area universities, in Washington, D.C., on April 25, 2024.
Allison Bailey/NurPhoto via Shutterstock

MIT's then-President L. Rafael Reif called Russia's military actions "unacceptable" in his announcement that the institute's relationship with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow would end.

"This step is a rejection of the actions of the Russian government in Ukraine," said Reif. "We take it with deep regret because of our great respect for the Russian people and our profound appreciation for the contributions of the many extraordinary Russian colleagues we have worked with."

Similarly, more than 100 universities have divested from the fossil fuel industry, pulling back on endowments or research funding, according to the Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Commitments Database. Among these institutions are Boston University, Columbia University, New York University, Stanford University, Princeton University, and others.

"The Board of Regents recognizes the gravity and the urgency of the situation with respect to climate change," read a 2022 from the University of Washington Board of Regents chair David Zeeck. "With this resolution, the Board wishes to avoid greenwashing and to take meaningful action, putting the University of Washington in the front ranks of universities addressing climate change through research, teaching, operations and investments."

In the early to mid-2000s, dozens of schools – including Yale University, Harvard University, Stanford University and others – announced they would divest from companies operating in Sudan due to the ongoing prevalence of massacres, rape, looting and destruction at the hands of the Sudanese government in Darfur.

"The government of Sudan is an active participant in genocide against people in the Darfur region," read a report on investments from Yale's Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. "Oil revenues account for a majority of Sudanese government income, and therefore are instrumental in financing genocide."

The University of California Board of Regents voted to divest as well, with a letter to the Committee on Investments that stated: "If The Regents choose to maintain the status quo, the University will continue to profit from foreign companies who are helping to fund the government of Sudan's genocide campaigns in Western Darfur."

A long list of higher education institutions also divested from either some or most of their holdings that were connected to apartheid in South Africa as early as 1977, according to Hampshire College, which became the first U.S. school to divest amid student protests, and subsequently inspired at least 155 schools to follow suit by 1988.

"The Trustees have decided to sell all common shares they control," read a statement from the school's public relation office in 1977. "Since the college has no policy by which it can control the financial, moral, social and political considerations necessary in purchasing stock, the Trustees have directed the administration to provide guidelines after which it will again make investments."

What universities have agreed upon regarding Israel

Some universities – including Columbia University, the University of Rochester, and Tufts University – have said they will not divest from companies connected to Israel, while others are having conversations with students about their concerns.

Some universities say they are declining to divest because of the aforementioned complications with local laws, while others, like the University of Michigan, said that divesting could "increase investment risk and decrease our investment returns," potentially generating less income for the schools.

Columbia also has recently promised to be more responsive to student concerns and proposals about the university's investments, and to make information about those investments more accessible and up-to-date.

At least three schools, however, have agreed to open discussions regarding divestment in Israeli military operations, in order to quell intensifying protests.

Brown University recently said it had reached an agreement with pro-Palestinian student protesters to end their encampment, which began on April 24.

Five students have been invited to meet with five members of the Corporation of Brown University, according to the statement. The meeting is in response to the students' interest to be heard on the issue of “divestment from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territory,” which was a core demand of their protest action, the statement says.

The meeting responds to the students' interest to be heard on the issue of “divestment from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territory,” which was a core demand of their protest action, according to the statement.

Brown President Christina Paxson will ask the Advisory Committee on University Resource Management to provide a recommendation on divestment by Sept. 30, which the corporation will vote on in October. Further, students, faculty, staff and alumni will not face retaliation for being involved in the encampment, according to the agreement, and no registered student organizations will lose their recognition.

Students are camping out for a second week of ongoing protests on the campus of Columbia University, in New York, on April 25, 2024.
Melissa Bender/NurPhoto via Shutterstock

Northwestern University announced it has reached a deal with pro-Palestinian protesters, ending an encampment of students and faculty but allowing peaceful demonstrations to continue through June 1.

The university said it would "answer questions from any internal stakeholder about holdings, held currently or within the last quarter, to the best of its knowledge and to the extent legally possible" – meeting a key condition from divestment protesters, as well as students around the country who are seeking more transparency over universities' investments.

Northwestern will also reestablish an Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility in the fall, which will include representatives from students, faculty and staff. The university additionally pledged more inclusivity, funding two Palestinian faculty members and the full cost of attendance for five Palestinian undergraduate students annually, as well as a commitment to raising funds to sustain the program beyond this commitment.

The University of Minnesota administration also successfully negotiated an agreement to end the student-led encampment on the Twin Cities campus.

The university addressed the six key items put forth by the activists, offering concessions and plans for further dialogue. Furthermore, the university promised to advocate for lenient legal remedies for those previously arrested in response to the protests, and pledged support for all students, announcing a forthcoming meeting with Jewish student leaders to ensure balanced support across communities.

The student coalition in turn has pledged not to organize disruptions during the upcoming final exams and commencement ceremonies. Representatives from the student coalition also will be given a platform to address the Board of Regents regarding their concerns at a scheduled meeting on May 10.

ABC News' Nadine El-Bawab and Jason Volack contributed to this report.

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