Why are students protesting at Columbia University?

“Disclose, divest. We will not slow, we will not rest.”

This chant in recent days has echoed across Columbia University, the epicenter of a nationwide campus protest movement that has led to more than 2,000 arrests and roiled universities in the midst of graduation season.

Protesters at these pro-Palestinian encampments have made it clear they are against Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, which is in its seventh month. But what, specifically, do they want from their universities? Here’s a closer look:

Students with the Gaza Solidarity Encampment block the entrance of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University.
Students with the Gaza Solidarity Encampment block the entrance of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University after taking over it on Tuesday. (Marco Postigo Storel/AP)

A central demand from protesters has been calling for their universities to divest, i.e., cut business ties with Israel or any companies that are aiding its military campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

Divestment is when an organization — in this case, a university — sells off what it has invested in a certain fund or property. Specifically, the protesters want their universities to stop investing money in entities that they believe support Israel.

It might seem odd to think of universities investing money like a bank does, but it’s in fact a similar process. Universities have endowments — money granted through alumni donations and other means — and they put that money into ventures like private equity funds, real estate and hedge funds. In turn, those types of assets can have investments anywhere in the world.

Although most universities have only a small amount actually invested in Israeli companies, there are many related connections. For example, the Guardian reports that Columbia has direct investments in companies like Amazon and Google, which have a $1.2 billion cloud-computing contract with the Israeli government; Microsoft, whose services are used by the Israeli Defense Ministry; and Lockheed Martin, which supplies weapons for Israel.

Demonstrators at Columbia and elsewhere are calling for their universities to break these kinds of financial ties.

Columbia president Minouche Shafik says the school will not divest from Israel, but did offer some proposals to demonstrators.

“The University offered to develop an expedited timeline for review of new proposals from the students by the Advisory Committee for Socially Responsible Investing, the body that considers divestment matters,” Shafik said in a statement Monday. “The University also offered to publish a process for students to access a list of Columbia’s direct investment holdings, and to increase the frequency of updates to that list of holdings.”

Similarly, most other universities are not heeding the calls for divestment. Brown University and Northwestern University, however, have diffused protests after pledging to demonstrators to take up votes on whether to divest from companies doing business with Israel.

In addition to divestment, pro-Palestinian demonstrators have called for a number of other actions. Here are some examples:

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A student group calling itself Scientists Against Genocide demanded that the school stop accepting alleged research funding from the Israeli military. MIT has declined to address claims that the school has financial ties to Israel.

  • University of Michigan: Pro-Palestinian demonstrators called on the school to stop sending money to investment managers who profit from Israeli companies or contractors. School officials have said they have no direct investments with Israeli companies and rejected the protesters’ demands.

  • Columbia, Emerson, Harvard and Yale: Along with demands to divest, protesters called for greater financial transparency in how their schools spend their endowments.

  • University of California, Berkeley: Protesters urged the school to enact policies to protect Palestinian students and sever academic ties with Israeli universities and programs, according to a social media post from UC Berkeley Divest.

Divestment movements aren’t a new concept in the world of campus activism. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, protesters successfully pressured universities to cut financial ties with companies that supported the apartheid regime in South Africa. More recently, fossil fuel divestment protests have also proved successful at U.S. universities.

Columbia made headlines in 1985 when it announced it would sell $35 million of stock in U.S. companies that were doing business in South Africa.

The success of the anti-apartheid movement inspired a decades-long campaign against Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS. The current demands for universities to divest from Israel are rooted in this movement.