Students Are Pushing US Colleges to Sever Ties With Military-Industrial Complex 

The violence wreaked by U.S. wars since 9/11 has been immense — more than 929,000 total deaths, including an estimated 380,000 civilian deaths. And the U.S. has spent a staggering $14 trillion in Pentagon expenditures since the Afghanistan War in 2001, up to one-half of which went directly to defense contractors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon.

While these facts are outrageous, they aren’t surprising in a country built on colonial violence — a country whose power and expansion are derived from war-making, with such militarism being grounded in every institution arising from the state, including education.

Students and young people are witnesses to the ways in which the U.S. education system is deeply complicit with war and militarism, and in increasing numbers we are demanding change. As student organizers with Dissenters — a national movement that is building local teams of young people across the country and mobilizing to reclaim our resources from the war industry, reinvest in life-giving institutions, and repair collaborative relationships with the earth and people around the world — we were part of a weeklong effort at the end of October, in which students at 16 campuses across the country rose up to unite around three central demands: 1) Universities must divest all holdings and cut all ties from the top five U.S. war profiteers: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrump Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics; 2) All cops off of all campuses; 3) All recruiters off all campuses.

Such a statement lies at the heart of Dissenter’s organizing and the Dissenter’s overall “Divest from Death” campaign, which helps students mobilize against any war-making institutions their schools may be invested in. In fact, U.S. colleges and universities are complicit in lining the pockets of war profiteers and overall defense contractors. Colleges like American University award lucrative board positions to war profiteers like Wesley Bush, the former CEO of Northrop Grumman; and just this February, a $75 million donation from major shareholders of General Dynamics — the Crown Family — was approved by the University of Chicago’s newly renamed Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice. Meanwhile, hundreds of other U.S. universities continue to renew contracts with U.S. defense companies to fund and fuel internship programs, arts and cultural buildings on campus, and to maintain a steady STEM-to-war pipeline at the nation’s top engineering schools.

With the clear stake that U.S. institutions have in perpetuating endless war, it’s no wonder that young people at colleges across the country are rising up to demand our schools sever ties with the military-industrial complex.

The rising momentum of antiwar organizing among students was especially apparent on Oct. 25-31 during the Dissenters Divest from Death Week of Action, as young people from Chicago, to Washington, D.C, to California, to Hawaii explicitly centered humanity over profit by disrupting “business as usual” at their institutions through direct action.

Students Fight Investment in Militarism

On October 11, the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) sent out an email to its student body proudly claiming that its city was one of the first to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States, and asking students to research and acknowledge the land we are on to honor the day. All the while, the University of California and CalTech have received upwards of $300 million to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project located on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. – a project that has been actively opposed by Indigenous Hawaiian protesters. Mauna Kea is a sacred place, and to build a large telescope on top of it would be a desecration. While protesting the construction of TMT on their land, Indigenous Hawaiians, including elders, have been met with arrests by settler-state police and threats of even greater violence, including the calling in of the National Guard. Where is the honor in ignoring and trampling over the calls being made by Indigenous Hawaiians to put a stop to the development?

Hawaii Dissenters workday at Ka’ala Farm and Cultural Learning Center.

Now more than ever, UC Berkeley students are building coalitions with organizers throughout Hawaii as they fight to protect Mauna Kea from TMT. However, they are not the only university contributing to the construction of TMT. In fact, Punahele Kutzen, a student organizer of Hawaii Dissenters in Manoa, emphasizes that while the University of California is a full partner in the construction of TMT, “so many universities are direct profiteers of this desecration,” including the California Institute of Technology and Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) associate schools like Johns Hopkins, Yale, and more.

Student organizers involved with the Hawaii Dissenters in particular have continued to make their resistance to such funding and imperialism known against this construction, as well as various other forms of desecration on Hawaiian land. During the Divest from Death Week of Action, Hawaii Dissenters’ main focus was on highlighting the climate imperialism resulting from the U.S. military’s ongoing occupation of Hawaii.

Stressing the imminent threat to the water supply and ecosystem by the Navy’s underwater missile testing and fuel tanks, Hawaii Dissenters directly confronted military officials and settler state politicians about their role in Red Hill — a military fuel storage facility in Hawaii.

Conducting a community teach-in titled “Red Hill 101” as part of a coalition of O’ahu-based Water Protectors, Hawaii Dissenters also made public comments at last week’s Red Hill Task Force Meeting, in which they challenged the military and state’s claims of national security as justification for poisoning O’ahu waters and overall Hawaiian land. Beyond their week of action, Kutzen clarifies that Hawaii Dissenters are “continuing to plant pilina [relationship or union] and build connections with folks from the ground up, connecting with ʻĀina [the land] as we fight for genuine security.”

In Chicago, students at University of Chicago have been fighting a different battle against their institution’s direct investment within militarism and destruction. University of Chicago Dissenters spent their week of action partnering up with #CareNotCops and other student organizations to protest Paul Alivisatos’s inauguration as president of UChicago.

“President Alivisatos may be a new face, but he is beholden to the same donors, billionaire trustees,” said a representative of #CareNotCops, who wished to remain anonymous.

Alivisatos proposed 10 “vectors and culture of engagement” for his new direction of the University — but none of them promises true change.

“The vectors do not denounce UChicago’s active role in domestic militarism, through CPD and the University of Chicago Police Department, where ‘engagement’ is the harassment and surveillance of our Black neighbors and peers. Nor do they address UChicago’s role in international militarism — in fact, these ‘vectors’ only mention an expansion of UChicago’s investment portfolio, which currently includes four of the five largest weapons manufacturers in the country (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and Raytheon), and other war profiteers,” said the representative.

History shows us that “elite” U.S. schools like UChicago do, and will — without apology — displace and demolish whole swaths of Black neighborhoods, fund warfare and deforestation through investing multibillion-dollar endowments, bust unions, steal wages, force out disabled students and sexual assault survivors, send cops to shoot those in crisis, harass Black neighbors with private police forces, and more as it suits its financial interests.

“That’s why we want the university to divest precious money and resources from the UChicago Police Department, and invest in funding #EthnicStudiesNow, #CulturalCentersNow and #ReparationsNow for the South-Siders whose lives have been affected by university expansion,” said Nico Emmanuel-Henderson, a Dissenters organizer at UChicago.

Students Fight the Revolving Door Between the University and the Military

Besides direct investment in funding and research to war-making institutions, universities have other insidious ways of ingraining militarism in the school structure. Most prominently, these include recruitment to military and policing programs like the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), which often have a major presence on our campuses. Programs like the ROTC often offer students money in grants and scholarships — or even payment of future scholarly endeavors — if they were to sign up. Such promises ensure a steady stream of college students — who too often struggle to pay for outrageous tuition on top of the other crucial resources like books, food, rent, and more — to participate in and perpetuate violent militarism and oppression.

Moreover, recruitment looks like universities making space for weapons-manufacturing companies to scout out potential employees on campuses, both formally and informally. At schools like Howard University (HU), Lockheed Martin is especially prominent, and has been targeting Howard’s Black student population to “diversify” its own team and staff. In other words, the company is searching for Black computer science, engineering and business majors — science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students — to contribute in doing the work of militarism and oppression.

But when we consider this horrific STEM-to-militarism pipeline, it leads us to the important question of who is behind such recruitment strategies and what stakes they have in militarism. Too often, higher-ups at universities who approve or even advocate for programs that benefit militarism have a deep connection, and thus fealty, to war-making and militarism.

American University Dissenters posing with banner at their school’s School of International Service.

American University (AU) most recently approved Wesley Bush — former CEO of the weapons-manufacturing company Northrop Grumman — to the Board of Trustees in January 2021, leading to a school-wide campaign against him. For their Divest from Death Week, AU Dissenters organized a “trick or treat” canvassing event to garner more signatures on their petition to remove Bush from their Board, and orchestrated a banner drop within the School of International Service — the most renowned department at American University. On top of on-campus organizing, AU Dissenters dedicated this week and beyond to standing in solidarity with Howard University students organizing the Blackburn Takeover. In fact, for almost a month now, HU students have been protesting their hazardous dorm living conditions– including mold, roaches and vermin– by occupying their Blackburn Student Center. Students’ list of demands include a meeting with the Howard administration, full academic, disciplinary and legal immunity, that student rights to vote for the Board of Trustees be reinstated, and a legitimate housing plan. As temperatures continue to drop and with the Howard administration continuing to antagonize them, student protesters rely on outside sources for food, encampment materials and things to keep warm. For the week of action, AU Dissenters was able to raise enough money to purchase a generator for them, and are making weekly supply runs for students at Blackburn, “for however long it takes.”

AU students are making strides in their organizing, and have even caught the attention of other administrative members. In fact, in response to students sending letters for Bush’s removal, American’s University’s current president (and former Secretary of Health and Human Services under the Obama administration) Sylvia Burwell sent an email to students about Bush’s presence on the board, saying, “Members of the Board of Trustees represent a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, all of which are critically important for advancing the university’s mission. Wes Bush’s extensive experience in the corporate and philanthropic sectors will augment the board’s efforts and contribute to our work and our community.”

Burwell is right about one thing: Board of Trustees members play a crucial role in advancing the university’s missions. In fact, the Board of Trustees is a critical structure in university administration, as it controls the development of the school’s overall objective, school policies, and how money can be used to implement these programs and policies. In other words, the Board of Trustees handles where students’ money goes and how that money is used. So when the board has vested interests in war and militarism, we must recognize how this can and does take precedence over the needs of students attending the university.

Mya Franklin, a member of Northwestern University’s chapter of Dissenters, emphasized this in a statement made during the Divest from Death Week of Action: “Divesting from militarism is deeply personal because there are people on the Board of Trustees at Northwestern that have not only the power, but the ability, to provide services like stipends for low-income students, expansion of CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services, the school’s primary mental health service], viable avenues to support survivors of [sexual assault], but they don’t. Instead, they are actively fueling death and destruction.”

A banner dropped over an arch on Northwestern University’s campus.
A banner dropped over an arch on Northwestern University’s campus.

The Board of Trustees members Franklin is talking about include Phebe Novakovic, the former CEO of General Dynamics, as well as Dennis Muilenburg, whose developments as the former CEO of Boeing include creating weapons used by the Israeli military to massacre Palestinians. Northwestern Dissenters were quick to call this out in their week of action, doing a banner drop and flyering their Research and Technology building with posters reminding students of how these board members and the institution as a whole are actively fueling death and destruction.

The work to purge university administrations of war criminals isn’t easy. After all, these are powerful individuals whose connections and resources can be weaponized to terrorize all opposition — even if they are young students. And with these profiteers being well-integrated (and monetarily beneficial) to the internal administrative structure, universities will do anything to protect them. Most of the time, this includes harassing and surveilling students on campus.

As a member of the American University Dissenters, I (Ngakiya Camara) personally recall instances of being surveilled on campus and have been agitating against AU’s practice of doing nothing to protect Black students on campus, while simultaneously doing everything to protect Wes Bush.

Meanwhile, Mya Franklin of Northwestern Dissenters recalls being harassed by Northwestern University Police Department (NUPD) officers while doing the banner drop and flyering, stating, “Someone ripped down one of our posters as it was drying. [A] NUPD pig pulled up and harassed us. That morning, we all acutely experienced militarism as we were fighting for anti-militarism.”

So long as universities are prepared to prioritize the role of war criminals on our campus over the livelihood of their students, these instances will persist. And as long as powerful war profiteers occupy crucial administrative positions like the Board of Trustees, resources meant for students will be used to strengthen the lucrative ties that these profiteers have to the institutions they worked for and are invested in. But even in the face of powerful war profiteers, we will not be silent.

Our universities, which boast to be hubs of progressiveness and inclusivity, partner with the very same death institutions that perpetuate imperialism and settler-colonialism. From their direct investments in research for colonial constructions like TMT in Hawaii or cops in Chicago, to their approval of war profiteers to their Board of Trustees, these instances too often happen behind closed doors, beyond the watchful gaze of students whose lives are threatened by these systems of militarism. But we — students and folks impacted by U.S. militarization — are watching, and recognize the power we have in faltering the systems of violence our universities strive to maintain.

It’s now time for universities to recognize us, and our demands for them to divest from death. From Washington, D.C. to California to Hawaii, we are seeing other young people mobilizing on their campuses to call for their schools to sever ties with the military-industrial complex. We won’t stop until we turn the tide against war and militarism.