Calls to Divest From Israel Put Students and Donors on Collision Course

Desperate to stem protests that have convulsed campuses across the country, a small number of universities have agreed to reconsider their investments in companies that do business with Israel.

The deals, which have eased tension on campuses with only a few days left before students break for the summer, would have been unthinkable even a week ago. And they’re a gamble, potentially putting universities on a collision course with influential donors, politicians and students who support Israel.

The schools are still far from pulling money: Brown University, the liberal Ivy League institution, agreed this week only to hold a board vote this fall on whether its $6.6 billion endowment should divest from any Israeli-connected holdings. In exchange, the pro-Palestinian encampment on the campus’s main lawn was dismantled.

Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota have also struck deals with student protesters to clear camps in exchange for a commitment to discuss the schools’ investment policies around Israel. The moves could add pressure on administrators at Columbia University, the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina, among others, where protesters have made divestment from Israel a central rallying cry.

The issue of financial divestment from Israel has long been an untouchable one, both in American politics and among the Wall Street titans who manage university endowments and make up a large source of donations. Taking sides now is a surefire way to inflame at least one faction in a conflict that has divided campuses, split the Democratic Party and handed Republican lawmakers a cudgel with which to attack the institutions.

Even the renewed talk of divestment has raised alarms among the well-heeled donors whom few universities dare cross, and who have exerted influence over the debate on college campuses since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the subsequent invasion of Gaza. Billionaires, including the fund manager William A. Ackman and Marc Rowan, a private-equity chieftain, mounted campaigns to remove the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania over their handling of antisemitism on their campuses.

Brown’s agreement will let students make their case and then have the Brown Corporation, the university’s governing body, vote on the matter in October. It was partly negotiated by the university president, Christina H. Paxson, who met directly with student protesters last Friday, proposing a “path forward” that included allowing a small group of activists to discuss the divestment proposal with a contingent from the corporation later this month, the university said.

But Dr. Paxson’s initial offer did not include bringing a divestment proposal to a vote. That came after two university negotiators and six students involved with the Brown Divest Coalition, one of the groups behind the movement, reached a deal on Tuesday, the university and several students said.

The agreement immediately gave the university control of its facilities in time to allow students to finish classes and hold in-person graduation ceremonies and an alumni reunion this month. One donor, an investor who has made sizable contributions to the university and describes himself as a supporter of Israel, said members of the administration had assured him that Brown wouldn’t ultimately divest from Israel.

The administration, this donor said, could still take steps to prevent a vote.

A Brown spokesman, Brian Clark, said the corporation was “fully committed” to voting on the matter.

The University of Minnesota is among the institutions that have also struck deals with student protesters to clear camps in exchange for a commitment to discuss the school’s investment policies around Israel.Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

Some other donors said they saw the agreement as a smart way to push off the issue until a time when the situation in Israel and Gaza may be less intense.

But in interviews, several donors — ranging from recent graduates to millionaire financiers and one billionaire — said going through with divestment would cross a bright line. They said they would reduce, or cut entirely, their donations to the university.

While they were skeptical that Brown would ultimately pull any money from investments linked to Israel, some were dismayed that their alma mater appeared to have even partly genuflected to protesters. Most asked not to be named because of the delicate nature of the matter.

Harry Chalfin, a 26-year-old Brown graduate whose parents also earned degrees from the Providence, R.I., school, said he would closely watch the divestment debate.

“We would consider using our family’s not-tremendous-but-not-negligible financial leverage to pressure Brown on this,” said Mr. Chalfin, whose father works in investment management.

Universities carefully control their endowments, typically revealing little about how they invest billions of dollars, and any consideration of moving funds away from Israel is a victory for protesters agitated over what they say has been insufficient support from the institutions for Gaza. That position puts investing in Israel on a par with investing in fossil fuels, which has become a nonstarter now for many colleges.

“There will be donors who are against this. Our argument is: That can’t matter,” said Rafi Ash, a Brown sophomore who helped lead the protest on the university’s main lawn.

The divestment movement targeting Israel predates the current war in Gaza. At Brown, the formal campaign dates back to at least 2019, when students voted in favor of a referendum proposal that called for the university to divest from “companies complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine.”

In 2020, a university committee that considers the ethical standards of Brown’s investing recommended that the university divest from 10 companies it said were helping Israel commit human-rights abuses. It also outlined criteria for considering ethical investment with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At the time, Dr. Paxson turned away the efforts, saying the endowment was “not a political instrument” to resolve complex issues. In 2021, she refused to move forward the divestment proposal, in part because it lacked a “requisite level of specificity.”

The most recent divestment proposal borrows heavily from the old one, using the same criteria laid out in 2020. Student protesters see it as a practical way for the school to pressure Israel to agree to a cease-fire, and cite as a precedent Brown’s divestment from investing directly in South Africa during the 1980s, Darfur two decades ago and fossil fuels starting in 2017.

Supporters of Israel say those comparisons are off base, and see the nation’s incursion in Gaza as a defensive response to Hamas’s October rampage and hostage taking. One longstanding response to such calls is that divestment from Israel stems from antisemitism, because activists are targeting the only Jewish country in the world and not seeking divestment from other nations accused of engaging in human-rights atrocities.

And Rhode Island is one of more than two dozen states with laws that could penalize efforts to boycott, issue sanctions against or divest from Israel, though those measures have been challenged on freedom-of-speech grounds.

But there are also practical challenges with any effort to divest. One, simply, is identifying what to divest and how to define the terms of such a policy.

Some academics question whether divestment works, with research finding that it has little to no impact on the bottom lines or behavior of targeted firms. Others point to the logistical complexity of divesting: As a private institution, Brown isn’t required to disclose all of its endowment’s investments, and in fact says almost nothing about them. Some 96 percent of its coffers are invested via outside asset managers.

The Brown Divest Coalition said it wanted to the university to sell off “stocks, funds, endowment and other monetary instruments from companies facilitating and profiting from Israeli human rights abuses.” It outlined criteria for divesting from certain companies, drawing upon lists compiled by three organizations, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The students acknowledge that they don’t even know if Brown invests in any of those companies. That’s because what Brown does with its money — and how the institution or any other school would get rid of them — is hardly straightforward.

Brown does not disclose its outside asset managers or their investments. Members of Brown’s corporation did not respond to requests for comment.

“The university has not endorsed the divestment proposal,” Mr. Clark, the Brown spokesman, said in a statement. “Whether it’s for or against divestment, the vote will bring clarity to an issue that is of longstanding interest to many members of our community.”

Several steps remain before Brown’s board votes on divestment. First, five of the protesting students will meet with five members of the corporation during its regular meetings this month. In a letter to the university community on Tuesday, Dr. Paxson said she hoped the meeting would “allow for a full and frank exchange of views.”

Said Stewart Baker, a Brown alumnus and donor: “This is a great way to push the issue aside.”

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