Apartheid to fossil fuels: Columbia’s history of divestment before Gaza | Explainer News

As the roar of protests against Israel’s war on Gaza grows louder on campuses across the United States, a key demand has taken centre stage: divestment. Students and teachers who are a part of the protests are insisting that their universities stop all funding and investments tied to Israel.

At the heart of the protests is New York’s Columbia University, an Ivy League institution steeped in the history of campus student action stretching back decades.

And while no two protests are the same, the university also has a long tradition of leading US educational institutions in ending controversial investments – often under pressure from its student, faculty and alumni communities.

What does it mean for Columbia to divest from Israel? 
The underlying goal for any divestment is to redistribute the university’s endowment funds to focus on investments that are seen as more ethically sound while also using that money to encourage governments and other institutions to change their policies.

Columbia has an endowment fund of $13.6bn. Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a coalition of campus groups that is one of the organisers behind the current protests, has identified a series of investors that it wants the university to sever ties with. They include BlackRock, the asset management giant; Airbnb, which has offered rentals in the occupied West Bank; Caterpillar, whose bulldozers Israel has used; and Google, which has faced protests from staffers over Project Nimbus, which provides artificial intelligence services to Israel.

These investments constitute an almost negligible amount of Columbia’s endowment funds, but in February, the university made it clear that it had no intentions of divesting from firms tied to Israel.

Yet the university has often in the past led the way among top US schools on divestments from controversial investments.

Divesting from apartheid South Africa

In 1985, students successfully pressured Columbia to divest itself from a slew of major companies that operated in apartheid South Africa.

After weeks of demonstrations, university authorities buckled and pulled out of companies like Coca-Cola, Chevron, Ford and American Express. The total stock value that Columbia dumped amounted to about 4 percent of the university’s portfolio.

A series of universities followed suit from the University of California at Berkeley to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 1994, South Africa finally held its first democratic elections when the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, came to power, marking the end of decades of white rule over a Black majority nation.

When Columbia took a stand on Sudan

In 2006, the Columbia University Sudan Divestment Task Force, a student-run organisation, pressured the university to divest from Sudan as human rights violations were committed in its western region of Darfur.

The Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) at Columbia University, an advisory committee established in 2000 to advise university trustees on ethical and social issues, pledged to divest from 18 firms that conducted business in Sudan.

No smoking

Since 2008, Columbia has also ended investments in companies linked to tobacco.

The university maintains a list of these companies – both American and global firms – that Columbia is barred from investing in.

US companies that manufacture tobacco or tobacco products are on the list. As for foreign firms, the list extends to companies involved in the distribution of tobacco and tobacco products.

Private prisons off limits

In 2015, pressure from Columbia Prison Divest, a student-led group advocating for private prison divestment, pushed Columbia’s Board of Trustees to pull out $10m from Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and G4S.

CCA operates for-profit prisons throughout the US, and G4S supplies technology and security personnel to these facilities globally.

As with divestments relating to apartheid South Africa, Columbia was the first US university to divest from prisons there.

Lee Bollinger, Columbia’s president at the time, backed the call from the ACSRI that the university “divest any direct stock ownership interests in companies engaged in the operation of private prisons and refrain from making subsequent investments in such companies”.

“I support this recommendation, which represents the culmination of thoughtful analysis and hard work by ACSRI and by our students, faculty and alumni,” Bollinger said.

Hunger strikes lead to fossil fuel divestments

In 2016, Sunrise Columbia, a coalition of climate activists at Columbia University, amped up its campaign to get the institution to divest from fossil fuels. These protests would eventually involve weeklong hunger strikes and sit-ins outside Bollinger’s office.

In 2017, Columbia pledged to divest from thermal coal, and in January 2020, it announced a no-investment policy for oil and gas companies.

In a November 2020 statement, Columbia’s ACSRI said: “The urgency and importance of climate change require Columbia to do everything it can to support and accelerate the transition, including investments in companies with credible plans and actions to transition the economy from fossil fuels to net-zero GHG-emitting [greenhouse gas-emitting] sources of energy.”

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