TAMPA — College campuses, still havens of idealism and hotbeds of activism, are borrowing from an earlier generation’s playbook by aiming at the wallet to change what they see as human-rights violations.
A group of students at the University of South Florida is petitioning the university’s foundation to divest its investments in companies they link to human-rights violations against Palestinians.
The expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been condemned by the United Nations and European Union but largely avoided by U.S. diplomats.
“In order for the companies to consider who they are going to affiliate themselves with and what work they’re going to do, they have to be held accountable,” said Malak Fakhoury, a junior psychology major and member of Students for Justice in Palestine at USF.
The USF campaign mirrors dozens under way across U.S. college campuses targeting climate change, the Palestinian dispute and other issues.
The gold standard in divestiture campaigns came in the mid-1980s, when economic pressure on South Africa was credited with the dismantling of apartheid — that country’s system of racial segregation.
Omar Erchid, who just graduated from USF with a degree in mass communications, said diplomacy hasn’t done much to settle the volatile Middle East situation.
“Peace talks have gone on and on, but there’s just been more oppression, more settlement expansion,” he said. The students’ campaign “was born to hit them in the pocket — hit them where it hurts.”
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The students have singled out Caterpillar, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, G4S, Hewlett Packard and Northrop Grumman as companies profiting from human-rights violations.
Caterpillar, for example, manufactures militarized bulldozers that have been used to raze the homes of Palestinians. HP provides checkpoint technology. G4S is a British security firm, and the others are major military equipment providers.
The students also are also calling for more transparency in the foundation’s investment strategy and for the inclusion of faculty and students on an advisory committee.
The students say they have the signatures of more than 10,200 students supporting those goals, but it doesn’t appear that USF Foundation officials are in any hurry to tinker with its $403 million endowment.
Students for Justice representatives met with endowment officials but say they received no commitment. A foundation panel meets later this month, but the students haven’t heard whether they will be invited to present their case to the full committee.
Representatives of the foundation would not discuss the issue, but USF spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez confirmed the meeting with the students and said foundation officials listened to their requests and concerns.
“The organization did present its petition, and we’re going to review what was presented and are discussing the next steps,” Wade-Martinez said.
The head of a prominent Jewish campus organization says the students aren’t speaking for the majority at USF.
Members of Students for Justice in Palestine “are trying to de-legitimize the state of Israel through falsehoods, half-truths and blatant lies,” said Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, executive director of Hillels of the Suncoast, which oversees all of the campus Hillel organizations in the Tampa area.
“They’ve really gone overboard,” Rosenthal said. “Somebody needs to call them out for what they are. This has gone beyond political discourse. This is anti-Semitism.”
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Nationwide, student activists have been heartened by a major victory in the divestiture movement.
Last week, Stanford University announced it will sell off its endowment of stocks in coal companies.
Bill McKibbin, founder of 350.org, an environmental organization that pressured Stanford, said in a statement that the university “is at the forefront of the 21st century economy; it’s very fitting, then, that they’ve chosen to cut their ties to the 18th century technology of digging up black rocks and burning them.”
McKibbin said he was confident other institutions would follow, but the movement suffered a setback when Harvard President Drew Faust would not bend to pressure from students, faculty and alumni.
A UCLA economist, meanwhile, argues that the divestment strategy makes no economic sense.
Ivo Welch, professor of finance and economics, noted in a New York Times opinion column that Stanford’s $19 billion endowment represents only about five-hundredths of 1 percent of the world’s capitalization.
“Even if Stanford divested itself fully of all its stocks, both fossil and non-fossil, it would probably take the market less than an hour to absorb the shares,” Welch wrote. “It would not lead the executives of the affected companies to engage in soul-searching, much less in changes in operations.”
An advocate of the strategy says it’s not solely about the money.
“Historians do argue about this, but it does seem to be the case that these movements have a political effect of isolating these companies, and bringing to the forefront of public discussion behaviors that are not in the public interest,” said Ben Franta, an organizer with Divest Harvard.
That’s one goal of the USF students. Erchid noted that the anti-apartheid movement started in the 1960s, gained serious steam in the 1980s and succeeded in the 1990s.
“We understand that we have a long road ahead of us,” he said. “We’re realists.”