• U.S.
  • Education

Protesters Are Calling on Universities to Divest from Israel. Here’s What That Means

9 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

When Victoria Hinckley, a 21-year-old student organizer at the University of South Florida, participated in a pro-Palestinian protest Tuesday evening, she says the night ended with tear gas and rubber bullets used by police against the activists. (The school denies that rubber bullets were used.)

“It makes me really disappointed, but more than anything, it really, really makes me angry to see this sort of response,” says Hinckley, who says she was suspended later that evening over email. The college senior, however, remains adamant in one of her demands that led her to protest that night: for her university to divest funds from Israel.  

Hinckley is one of thousands of students choosing to participate in encampments or sit-ins across more than 100 colleges throughout the U.S. The protests are framed as an act of solidarity with the more than 34,000 Gazans who have died, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, following Hamas’ kidnapping of more than 200 hostages and killing of 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7. 

Divestment from Israel is one of the demands echoed by student demonstrators nationwide. At several colleges, students have erected tents on campus grounds as they rally for their cause, calling on universities to sell off investments from Israeli companies and those with ties to Israel, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Alphabet, and Amazon. About 100 U.S. colleges have reported gifts or contracts from Israel totaling $375 million over the past two decades, according to a Department of Education database.

“Divest all of Columbia’s finances, including the endowment, from companies and institutions that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine,” the Columbia University Apartheid Divest group wrote in its list of five demands, which also include an academic boycott and ending campus policing. “Ensure accountability by increasing transparency around financial investments.”

What are the students calling for? 

While the demands across universities vary, students are generally asking their schools to both disclose their investment profiles and commit to divesting from any business that profits from, or has a relationship with, Israel. 

“We think we should have a right to see where our own tuition money is going and have a say in what our tuition money is going towards,” says Hinckley. 

At least one of the corporations Hinckley names, and alleges her school has current investments in, is listed on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement website, which calls for the withdrawal of support of companies that they say support Israel or otherwise “engage in violation of Palestinian human rights.” The University of South Florida tells TIME in a statement that the school has maintained a “consistent position” on divestment for more than a decade and will not divest. “We have made this position clear many times. USF’s investments are guided by its mission, fiduciary responsibilities and state and federal laws. USF does not select individual stocks or companies for investment.”

But students elsewhere are also asking for divestment from tech companies like Google, which provides cloud computing services to Israeli troops, and has been subject to sit-ins by its own workers, prompting dozens to get fired. Other student protesters have also invoked Amazon, which has a joint contract with the Israeli government and military. 

At Yale University, students are advocating for divestment from military weapons manufacturing. The university previously prohibited investment in assault weapon retailers that facilitate sales to the general public. But in April, Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility announced that divestment from military weapons manufacturing did not meet their criteria for divestment “because this manufacturing supports socially necessary uses, such as law enforcement and national security.” 

How do college endowments and investments work? 

The calls for universities to divest from companies profiting from the Israel-Hamas conflict has put a spotlight on the intricate workings of university endowments and the practical implications of divesting. 

University endowments serve as the financial backbone of educational institutions, comprising vast sums of assets that can be used to support future investments and are managed to ensure long-term sustainability. Endowment figures at major universities can soar into the billions, with Columbia University’s endowment sitting at $13.6 billion in 2023. At Harvard, the endowment hovers around $50 billion.

These endowments—which are entrusted to boards of trustees—aren’t just money sitting idle, but rather actively managed investments cultivated to generate returns that help support the institution’s mission.

“Endowments are basically the university version of a 401(k),” says Chris Marsicano, who researches higher education finance and is an assistant professor of education studies at Davidson College. “There’s a bundle of different investments and the goal is to earn enough money in revenue over the next couple of years such that you can take some of that revenue and put it into your operating funds.”

Investment managers typically select companies for endowment portfolios that demonstrate strong financial performance, though many institutions also consider environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria into their investment process, screening companies based on their ethical practices.

What would divesting from Israel mean in practice? 

While the concept of divestment from Israel appears straightforward—selling off shares of companies with ties to the country—its practical implications are far more complex.

Divesting from Israel would mean universities reassessing their investment portfolios to identify and potentially divest from companies implicated in Israel’s war effort, such as supporting Israeli settlements in occupied territories or supplying equipment used in military operations. Some experts in the financials of higher education say that divesting could be a lengthy and complicated process, since most universities hold diversified portfolios managed by external investment managers that can’t provide easy identification of which companies are connected to Israel.

“There's no guarantee that any fund a university owns has no connection to Israel,” Marsicano says. “It's a near impossible task, just functionally getting it done.”

He adds that it would be particularly complicated for universities to divest from any company that does business in Israel, since nearly every major American multinational company does business in the country. Endowment managers also have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the organization they oversee, which could be a “tough pill to swallow,” Marsicano says.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also marked by a high degree of geopolitical sensitivity, suggesting protesters may find it difficult to persuade universities from divesting. Such actions may provoke backlash from alumni, donors, and political groups who oppose divestment initiatives on grounds of academic freedom or solidarity with Israel.

Have colleges divested from anything before?

There is a history of divestment movements that have had both symbolic and tangible impacts. Student-led divestment campaigns over South Africa apartheid rule in the 1980s pressured Columbia University to withdraw its investments from companies operating in the country. By 1988, a total of 155 colleges had at least partially divested from South Africa, with five institutions fully divesting.

On its website, the Columbia University Apartheid Divest group has compared itself to the protests on the same campus from nearly 40 years ago. "We are a continuation of the Vietnam anti-war movement and the movement to divest from apartheid South Africa."

That movement was soon followed by multiple schools’ decision to divest from the tobacco industry. “The effort to punish South Africa was a student-led thing, involving the occupation of administration buildings, but tobacco does not resonate with students that way,” Douglas Cogan, then director of tobacco information service at the Investor Responsibility Research Center, told the New York Times in 1997. “Today, faculty and administrators are leading the charge. That is particularly true when a school does cancer research and the faculty and administrators see a contradiction with its portfolio.”

Other institutions, like Stanford University, chose to divest from Sudan in 2005. “I don’t want the endowment that’s supposed to be serving me and this community invested in a country that conducts genocide,” Seth Silverman, a Stanford student said during a town hall meeting that year. At least 60 other colleges and universities opted to do the same, according to Investors Against Genocide, an organization that formerly worked to advocate for divestment of two foreign oil companies that helped fund the Darfur genocide.

More than 140 higher education institutions have divested from fossil fuels since 2011, per a research article published on the University of California Press site. Schools have also pulled investments from private prisons, with Columbia being the first university to do so in 2015. 

“We've seen other campuses divest when students demand it so we know that it's something that they can do, and we know that it's something that they will do as long as we put pressure on them to do so,” says Hinckley.

While divesting from American companies that have ties to Israel would most likely hurt endowments at universities, Marsicano says there are some examples of when divesting didn't negatively impact endowment figures. “Divesting from fossil fuels did not hurt Stanford's endowment, or Dayton’s sit-down, or Syracuse's endowment... in some cases, the endowment values rose fairly substantially after divestment.”

How schools have responded

Several universities have remained firm against student demands. Columbia University President Minouche Shafik announced on Monday that the school would not divest from Israel, but offered to “publish a process for students to access a list of Columbia’s direct investment holdings, and to increase the frequency of updates to that list of holdings.” Columbia also offered to make investments in health and education in Gaza.

In late March, the University of Michigan Regent Sarah Hubbard said the Board of Regents was “not moving to make any divestment of any kind” because the university needs a diversified investment portfolio to ensure returns remain high and risk stays low. She claimed that “less than one-tenth of the 1% of the endowment is invested indirectly” in companies with business ties to Israel, despite claims by students that the number was around one-third of the endowment, according to the University Record. The University of California and Yale University have also resisted calls for divestment. 

So far, Brown University seems to be the only college considering divestment in response to the latest protests. Administrators agreed to have five students meet with members of the Corporation of Brown University in May to present their argument for divestment, though their decision on the matter is not expected until October. 

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com