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Divesting From Israel’s War Isn’t Naive. Students Did It With Fossil Fuels.

The success of the fossil fuel divestment movement shows why divestment is such a powerful and threatening demand.

Students demanding that Harvard University divest from fossil fuels block the entrance to University Hall on the school's campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 28, 2017.

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As student protesters around the country continue to demand their universities divest from war, the world watches as the U.S. government continues to support Israel’s military operations in Gaza which have killed tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians. In demanding divestment, students are asking their universities to sell financial assets related to Israeli companies and other companies — including weapons manufacturers and defense contractors — profiting from Israel’s military actions.

A dominant narrative peddled by university administrations labels the students’ demands as naive and unrealistic. The truth is resistance to the protesters demands is strong because many universities do not want to disclose their financial entanglements. Some are even claiming divestment is impossible. But the powerful influence of previous divestment movements, however, tells a different story.

Campus divestment movements have previously contributed to transformative systemic change in global politics, including the fall of apartheid in South Africa and the delegitimization of fossil fuel interests in climate policy.

As a professor whose research focuses on the role of universities in climate justice and the movement toward energy democracy, I have studied the fossil fuel divestment movement in depth. Fossil fuel divestment is a powerful, growing global movement that has been effective in building pressure for fossil fuel phaseout.

Since 2011, student climate activists have been protesting to demand that their universities end institutional investments in companies profiting from continued fossil fuel extraction and use. Campaigns for fossil fuel divestment have successfully argued that higher education institutions have a responsibility to disentangle their financial assets from fossil fuels, the largest single contributor to the climate crisis.

In the United States, thanks to the efforts of students, over 250 educational institutions have committed to divesting from the fossil fuel industry including both public and private universities. To align their institutional climate commitments with their financial entanglements, some of the largest higher education institutions in the country have divested from fossil fuels, including the University of California system which has $126 billion in investments and Harvard University, which has an endowment over $50 billion. Research shows that divesting from fossil fuels has brought reputational and financial benefits to those universities that have divested.

Beyond universities, campus activism has been key to the expansion of the global fossil fuel divestment movement in other organizations too. Building on the momentum at universities, hundreds of other institutions, including faith-based organizations, philanthropic foundations, local governments, pension funds and health care institutions have also divested from fossil fuels. The Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Commitments Database reports that over 1,615 institutions worldwide have divested from fossil fuels — which includes over $40.76 trillion of investments.

The power of these divestment campaigns reflects the widespread recognition among students of the need for systemic economic change.

But just like the current criticism of student protesters calling for universities to divest from companies profiting from Israel, fossil fuel divestment has also met intense resistance. At first, many university administrators dismissed students’ demands. But over time with pressure mounting — and with more and more evidence of both the fossil fuel industry’s strategic efforts to thwart climate action and the expanding human suffering and ecological destruction caused by fossil fuels — the movement grew. More faculty got involved, and alumni and community members also became advocates forming large coalitions making the case for institutional divestment from fossil fuels.

Although many universities have still not divested from fossil fuels — and the fossil fuel industry continues to invest heavily in higher education to steer research and teaching away from fossil fuel phaseout, the movement continues to grow as more universities agree to divest. In response to the success of the fossil fuel divestment movement, some red states have been trying to legislate to prevent universities and other institutions from divesting based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns by pushing anti-ESG investment laws.

Despite this strong resistance, the fossil fuel divestment movement continues to grow. New York University is among the most recent higher education institutions in the U.S. to commit to divest from fossil fuels. The university announced in September 2023 that it would divest its endowment that is worth more than $5 billion. By divesting from fossil fuels, universities are leveraging their powerful role in society to facilitate systemic change away from climate chaos.

The success of the fossil fuel divestment movement demonstrates why divestment is such a powerful — and threatening — demand. Strong resistance to divestment movements by university administrators is commonplace because financial disclosure exposes universities to criticism about the impact of their financial entanglements not just in their investment portfolios but also in research funding, corporate partnerships and donors. But the hundreds of universities that have committed to fossil fuel divestment reflect the power and potential of higher education to demonstrate a societal commitment to a healthier, more stable and just future.

Unfortunately, universities in the United States have become so financialized and corporatized that financial considerations are all too often prioritized over intellectual integrity and open inquiry. Researchers studying the changing role of universities in society have coined the term “academic capture” to describe how powerful interests, including wealthy donors and corporate sponsorships, are having disproportionate influence and control over universities. Academic capture describes how financial interests have empowered external actors to influence intellectual inquiry on campus, including determining what kind of courses are offered and what kind of research is conducted.

One big difference between fossil fuel divestment protests and current student protests calling for divestment from Israel is the violent authoritarian responses that many university administrators have taken by calling in the police to squash the protests and remove encampments. In most cases, student protesters calling for fossil fuel divestment were not arrested nor did they face disciplinary action. At Northeastern University, for example, where I teach, student activists calling for the university to divest from fossil fuels set up an encampment of tents in fall of 2016. Although the students “occupied” the center of campus for weeks, the police were not called and a university spokesperson commended the students for their passion to address the challenge of global climate change. Although Northeastern has not divested from fossil fuels, the university did commit to investing $25 million of its endowment funds in environmental sustainability.

Just as the fossil fuel divestment movement did gradually succeed in getting hundreds of universities to divest, a growing number of universities are now committing to divest from companies profiting from Israel’s military actions. In the United States, this includes Evergreen State College and University of California Riverside — in Europe this includes Trinity College Dublin and the University of Barcelona. Divestment from Israel’s war at Union Theological Seminary in New York has been explicitly linked to the same human rights principles that led the institution to previously divest from fossil fuels, for-profit prisons and gun manufacturers.

The power of these divestment campaigns reflects the widespread recognition among students of the need for systemic economic change to disrupt the institutions and structures that continue to concentrate wealth and power among the elite. With humanity facing a polycrisis of intersecting problems, including violent militarization, climate chaos and growing economic precarity, students demanding that their universities divest reflects their rejection of the dehumanization that powerful interests perpetuate. Divestment from companies profiting from death and destruction, whether it be the fossil fuel industry or Israel’s war, is a way for higher education institutions to leverage their power to uphold basic human rights. And given the devastating ecological and climate impacts of Israel’s fossil-fueled war, these issues are intricately connected.

As the devastation and violence of the current extractive and exploitative systems get worse, calling for divestment offers students one way to advance transformative change toward a more just and equitable future. With more and more students recognizing the misalignment between their universities’ claims that they are addressing the grand challenges facing humanity and the lack of engagement with structural change on their campuses, divestment campaigns will not disappear.

Rather than resisting and denying students’ frustration with the lack of attention in universities to systemic change, higher education leaders could instead engage with student protesters, disclose their financial entanglements and openly acknowledge the insufficiency of their performative commitments toward a more stable, equitable and healthy future. Continuing to deny the deep financial entanglements that students can see on campus — whether it be fossil fuel companies funding energy research centers or buildings named after weapons manufacturers — will only perpetuate mistrust and disappointment among students, faculty staff and alumni.

In my forthcoming book, Climate Justice and the University, I argue for a restructuring of higher education so that universities are publicly funded in order to maintain their public good mission. Public funding for higher education in the U.S. has been in decline for decades forcing universities to cater to private sector funding. Rather than reinforcing an educational system that is open to manipulation by powerful interests focused on further concentrating their wealth and power, universities have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to commit to organizational transparency and full disclosure of all financial entanglements. This is essential for universities to ensure their intellectual integrity and to allow open exploration of structural systemic changes that are in the interest of the public good — not powerful elites.

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