The right to protest our universities’ decisions

There have been calls worldwide to divest from Israel

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Illustration of A group of people holding signs saying “Boycott, Divest, Sanctions” and “Free Palestine”
ILLUSTRATION: Den Kinanti / The Peak

By: Anthony Houston, SFU Student

Content warning: mentions of genocide and police violence.

University students across the world have organized encampments in the wake of the ongoing genocide in occupied Palestinian territories. These encampments are pro-Palestinian demonstrations, requesting their respective universities to “divest and sever ties with Israel” and Israeli universities.

Protests started in March in the US, with Columbia University students being some of the first to mobilize and organize an encampment on April 17. By the next day, Columbia president Minouche Shafik authorized the New York Police to enter university grounds and arrest student protestors. However, this did not stop them. Over the next two weeks, students, faculty, and other community members led walk-outs and the Columbia College Student Council passed a divestment referendum. This demonstration was replicated throughout the US, with Yale, NYU, and many more ongoing. 

These protests also expanded worldwide. France’s Science Po, Ireland’s Trinity College, and Japan’s Tokyo University are only some of the many universities where students have organized Palestinian solidarity encampments — all requesting divestment from Israel, some of which have succeded. Here in so-called Canada, students from the east to the west coast have organized similar protests. From McGill University in Montreal to UBC, students have echoed the requests of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and demand their respective universities divest. While SFU campuses haven’t had an encampment, students and faculty have organized other protests and demonstrations. The SFU Faculty for Palestine group has echoed the BDS movement’s demands and on May 23, SFU students took over the Belzberg Library and renamed it to the Khalida Jarrar library, in honor of the imprisoned Palestinian human rights activist.

The common thread among all of these protests lies in the endowments and investments protested universities hold in organizations or corporations that profit and are complicit in the ongoing genocide. UBC’s Endowment Fund has shares in eight companies targeted by the BDS movement, and while the percentage amount of the total endowment is of just 0.28%, monetarily it comes to about $7.8 million — not a negligible amount. Even more, SFU also holds shares of companies directly related with military equipment or war-related products. 6% of SFU’s endowment portfolio (3.9 million) is invested in BAE systems ($1.99 million), Booz Allen Hamilton ($1.85 million), and CAE Inc. ($0.084 million). Don’t dismiss the impact small percentages have, especially when these investments shouldn’t have happened in the first place. 

“Where is the due diligence that ensures the university’s investments align with the vision, purpose, and values the university so proudly showcases on its website?”

I personally don’t think students should have control over the financial decisions of a university. After all, why would I, a financial illiterate, be given the power to choose what investments will benefit the university the most? However, organized calls to divest from companies such as Lockheed Martin — the world’s largest arms-manufacturing and military services provider — must be heard. SFU and UBC have both invested in Lockheed Martin, but universities are learning institutions. Albeit externally, the decision to invest in companies directly related with weaponry manufacture is a perplexing one. How can universities continue to promote themselves as institutions dedicated to social justice, human rights, and ethical integrity while profiting from companies enacting the exact opposite of those values? Divesting not only serves as a form of economic pressure, but can also influence other universities and organizations to follow suit. This can snowball into tractable social and political change, just as it did with the South African apartheid divestment.

In a message to the UBC community, president Benoit-Antoine Bacon mentioned the university “does not directly own any stocks in the companies identified by the [BDS] movement.” In that same message Bacon acknowledged that the funds are “managed by external managers,” with about 0.28% of the fund invested in the companies identified by the movement. Where is the due diligence that ensures the university’s investments align with the vision, purpose, and values the university so proudly showcases on its website? Does investing in arms and military services align with their purpose of advancing a just society across the world? When our universities profit from these companies, they are complicit in the atrocities their products and services facilitate, and by proxi, we become complicit as well.

In the same message, Bacon reiterated the university’s commitment to the community safety. Yet, on June 1, the RCMP were called into campus and arrested a protestor, and, according to People’s University UBC, the week before “multiple local pro-Palestinian demonstrators were brutalized and arrested.” Similarly, SFU has surveilled and limited student-led pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Why is it that so many university administrations have responded to the pro-Palestinian protests by authorizing police access to their campus and surveilling their students? Universities have an obligation to the safety and security of their students. Not to state the obvious, but this includes Palestinian and minority group students. To ignore the historical and present abuse police bodies all around the world have enacted in marginalized and minority groups is beyond a problematic decision, is an authoritarian measure to maintain the status quo.

What can be said of the convocation speeches of so many university presidents — asking students to enact change, to be the leaders of tomorrow’s society, and to build a better future — when they are the first ones to limit change and hold tight to a past that ensures only their own future? Hypocrisy, that’s what we call it. Students can and will continue to be the engine for change and justice in the world. We aren’t an essential part of a university, we are the university, and as such our voices and demands should not fall in the willfully unresponsive ears of the administration. If students are organizing with well-crafted demands, projects, and ideas for improvement, there should be pathways that allow the possibility of change. This, however, is not a failure of the student body, but of the administrations that continue to ignore the voice of their university.

University administrations must listen to the voices of their community and provide concrete avenues for student and community-led protests and demands to actually be heard, discussed, and enacted. Concrete processes for petitions to be formalized should be created in tandem with designated “rapid response” teams and transparent discussion and decision-making channels with student and community representation and involvement. Thoughtless and empty-worded statements contradict the values and commitments so many universities make for their students.

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