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Pro-Palestinian protesters in Texas are calling for universities to divest. Here's what that means

State troopers surround pro-Palestinian protestors at the University of Texas at Austin last week.
State troopers surround pro-Palestinian protestors at the University of Texas at Austin last week.

When Jumana Fakhreddine took part in last week’s anti-war protests at the University of Texas at Austin, she said organizers had set up a peaceful teach-in with speakers and pizza. Their purpose was to pressure the university’s leadership to divest in entities tied to the Israeli war effort in Gaza, she said.

But the moment instead devolved into chaos where dozens of students were arrested by riot-gear clad state and local police officers who used force to quell the demonstration and stop students from venting their frustrations.

“The whole reason we were there was just to simply ask for divestment and to stop supporting the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Palestinians,” Fakhreddine, a 22-year-old biology and pre-med student, said. “I think that we just all want the occupation to stop.”

The ongoing protests at UT Austin come in response to the Israeli-led effort against Hamas after the Oct. 7 attack that left more than 1,200 Israelis dead and dozens held captive. Since then, the Gaza Ministry of Health reports more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Israel-Hamas war.

What is divestment?

These protests aren't confined to the UT Austin campus. Similar demonstrations have erupted on other public and private campuses across the state and the country. While reports and photos of a heavy-handed police response to the protests have dominated headlines, some students say the message about divestment hasn’t resonated as much as it should.

So what exactly is divestment, and why are protesters calling for it? It all starts with university endowments – basically, donated money and assets that are invested to generate income.

Caleb Silver, the editor-in-chief of Investopedia, told the Texas Newsroom that the UT System has one of the largest endowments in the world. As of the 2023 fiscal year, it was worth about $44.9 billion.

Silver said "divestment" is a broad term, but in terms of what protesters are demanding, it includes three key elements.

“What you see through these protests is students … asking for the university and their endowments to stop investing in companies that either do business directly with Israel, or do business with companies in Israel, or that invest in companies that are domiciled in Israel,” he said. “So, it's a broad request for the UT [System] endowment or some of these campuses.”

Last Wednesday’s protest at UT Austin was organized by the Palestine Solidarity Committee in Austin, a student organization, and specifically “called for a cease-fire in Gaza and for UT to divest from weapons manufacturers that provide supplies to Israel,” reported KUT.

Some students have also said they don’t want their tuition to go toward funding what they call a genocide of Palestinians. While the UT system does not put tuition funds into its endowment, Silver noted some other universities' endowments are partially funded by tuition.

“Endowments, generally speaking, are built from tuition payments made by students. They're also made from gifts from former students and alumni who are influential people connected to the university,” he said. “So oftentimes you will see wealthy donors giving millions – if not billions – of dollars to a university's endowment.”

Pro-Palestinian students at UT Dallas continued their call Friday, April 26, 2024, for the school to divest in companies supplying arms to Israel as the Gaza war nears a 7th month. Some representatives briefly met with UTD President Richard Benson to deliver their demands.
Bill Zeeble
Pro-Palestinian students at UT Dallas continued their call Friday, April 26, 2024, for the school to divest in companies supplying arms to Israel as the Gaza war nears a 7th month. Some representatives briefly met with UTD President Richard Benson to deliver their demands.

Calls for divestment aren’t a new strategy. They actually date back to at least the 1960s, when colleges and universities were in the grips of protests calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. Those were followed by calls for divestment in protest of South African apartheid and later, the fossil fuel industry in Texas.

That history aside, predicting the actual impact of divestment is somewhat complicated.

Chris Marsicano, an assistant professor of educational studies and public policy at Davidson College in North Carolina, told NPR the anti-fossil fuel movement didn’t make a significant difference. And it’s unclear whether the current campaign will yield results the protest movement deems significant.

“When universities have divested from fossil fuels, that hasn't made much of a dent in terms of the stock prices of those fossil fuel companies, and it doesn't seem to affect the university endowments,” he said. “It also has some parallels to South Africa in the '80s. But even then, the research shows that most of the divestment efforts mainly led to a global political movement. And I don't know that we're there yet with divestment from Israel due to the Gaza conflict.”

The calls for divestment aren’t confined to the UT Austin campus. Students at the University of Texas at Dallas held sit-in demonstrations last week and eventually met with university president Richard Benson, KERA reported.

"Our demand is for divestment. Our demand is for our university to end its complicity in the genocide," said Fatima Tulkarem, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine at UTD.

Demonstrators, however, didn’t make any headway toward their demands and said the meeting didn’t lead to meaningful discussions.

The flip side of divestment

Nationally, at least one student protest movement has provided some sense of progress. Brown University in Rhode Island announced Tuesday that an agreement was reached where protesters would dismantle their encampment and a university advisory committee would meet to discuss the students’ divestment demands.

“The University agreed that five students will be invited to meet with five members of the Corporation of Brown University in May to present their arguments  to divest Brown’s endowment from ‘companies enabling and profiting from the genocide in Gaza,’” the school said in a statement. Brown President Christina H. Paxson will also “ask the  Advisory Committee on University Resources Management to provide a recommendation on the matter of divestment by Sept. 30, and this will be brought to the Corporation for a vote at its October 2024 meeting.”

But Investopedia’s Caleb Silver said there is a flip side to divestment: If universities ultimately agree to divest from a certain company or entity – whether in Texas or elsewhere – they surrender any say in how it acts afterwards.

“You lose your voice in what that company is able to do going forward. And if you're a large shareholder – like a lot of these big university endowments are – you have a pretty big voice in how these companies operate,” Silver said.

“Well, you've taken your money out, you've walked away, you've let your money do the walking. But you've lost your ability to affect strategy, to affect change within that company.”

The Texas Newsroom's Lauren McGaughy contributed to this report.

Copyright 2024 KERA

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom