Education

What could divestment from Israel look like at Minnesota universities?

Pro-Palestinian student protesters are calling for their colleges to divest. Here’s what that could actually mean.

A person stands on a bridge holding a palestinian flag
A person holds a Palestinian flag during a student and faculty walkout at the University of Minnesota to protest the clearing of a pro-Palestine solidarity encampment and arrest of nine students by university police for trespassing earlier in the day on April 23.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Updated: 9:35 a.m.

Student protests are calling for universities in Minnesota and across the nation to end their  programs linked to Israel or divest from companies profiting from Israel’s war in Gaza and the resulting humanitarian crisis. 

In Minnesota, there have been protests at the University of Minnesota, Hamline University, Macalester College and Minnesota State University, Mankato, some with protest encampments on campus. 

At each school the protest demands have varied, but they are unified in their call for divestment.  

No Minnesota university has agreed to divest or end programs as of Tuesday, but some are in the early stages of disclosing financial information and examining the possibility of divestment.

So, what is divestment and how would it work? Why are students focusing on divestment? What is currently known about Minnesota universities’ connections to Israel and how do they compare to connections other American universities have? We answer those questions and more.  

What is divestment and how does it work? 

Divestment is the act of an institution selling off business interests or pulling investments to avoid complicity in behavior from companies they have deemed to be unethical or harmful. In this case, protesters are calling for educational institutions to divest from companies that have connections in Israel.  

The calls come as Israel’s assault in Gaza since October has killed more than 34,000 people, about two thirds of them women and children, and displaced about 80 percent of the population. 

The possibility of divestment looks different at each university.  

peaceful protests at MSU Mankato
Greisha Mainali paints the Palestinian flag into the shape of a heart on a T-shirt while at the encampment on campus at MSU Mankato on May 3. Underneath, she paints the words, "Disclose, Divest, Boycott."
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Financial divestment targets a university’s endowment. Endowments are a mix of assets including real estate, stocks and money from donors and fundraising, which are used to support the school’s educational mission. Many universities have investment managers who invest the endowment so that it grows, producing more money for the school.  

Todd Ely, an associate professor at University of Colorado Denver whose research and teaching focus includes examining public and nonprofit financial management and education finance, said divestment is possible but "takes a lot of political will, time, effort and likely some real costs.” 

How easily an institution can divest depends on restrictions on their existing investments and the breadth of investments they are trying to end, he said.  

Additionally, there are states around the nation that have passed laws applying to public colleges and universities that make boycotts, divestment, or sanctions illegal, also known as anti-BDS laws, said Ely. Minnesota is one of them.  

In 2017, Minnesota passed a law prohibiting state government, including universities, from contracting with vendors that participate in the anti-Israeli movement known as BDS.

“The governance model of public universities, with elected or politically appointed boards, may also complicate divestment actions depending on the political climate and social issue,” Ely said. “Alternatively, private institutions may be more sensitive to donors’ preferences when considering divestment.” 

Student protest organizers at Hamline, a private institution in St. Paul, alluded to this when describing what they had learned in their first, and only, to date, conversation with Interim President Kathleen Murray and Board of Trustees Chair Ellen Watters on April 29.  

people stand outside a university building at night
Hamline University student organizers held a vigil memorializing the lives of those killed during Israel's war in Gaza on May 6. About 40 students attended, as well as Hamline's Dean of Student Patti Klein-Kersten.
Anika Besst | MPR News

Hamline Students for Justice said administrators told students they could not make promises but that they would “convey” the student’s message to the Board of Trustees, the governing body that controls investment and financial decisions for the university, as they “have the ultimate power to do anything.”  

Hamline spokesperson Jeff Papas confirmed that is the case. 

Ely of CU Denver said divestment can also be a challenge because it is “secondary to the typical investment objectives to preserve and grow the endowment to support the institutional mission.”

“Other complications include the increasingly common use of external investment managers, which results in commingled funds across investors and alternative investments that are often locked up for a set period of time,” Ely said. 

Students have also outlined that their calls for divestment do not apply only to financial investments but also to what some students have called “academic divestments,” or their university’s connections and partnerships with Israeli institutions. These relationships include study abroad, fellowships and other partnerships with Israeli universities.  

People chant and hold signs during a protest
University of Minnesota students participate in a student and faculty walk-out to protest the clearing of a pro-Palestine solidarity encampment and arrest of nine students by university police for trespassing earlier in the day on April 23.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Why are pro-Palestinian protesters focusing on divestment?  

Protests on Minnesota campuses took off after an encampment at Columbia University drew national attention in April.  

Students were also inspired to take action after Students for a Democratic Society, a national student activist group with roots in protesting the Vietnam War, in October called on members to push their universities to divest from Israel.  

“This is really like a nationwide call that we are applying to our own conditions at our university,” said Merlin Van Alstine, a student organizer with the group’s U chapter. 

Omar Aly, a student leader with Students for Justice in Palestine at the U, said students don’t want to financially support Israel’s assault in any way.  

“We feel like we’re obligated as U of M students to do it, because we’re somehow also complicit in it, if we’re paying tuition, if our tuition money is going to this university,” Aly said. 

A person draws with chalk on a sidewalk
A student writes “divest from genocide” on the sidewalk during a walk-out at the University of Minnesota to protest the clearing of a pro-Palestine solidarity encampment and arrest of nine students by university police for trespassing earlier in the day on April 23.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Hamline Students For Justice said in an email to MPR News “we picked disclosure and divestment is because it is the most direct way we as students can play a role in cutting off the funding for Israeli War crimes.”

South Africa has filed a genocide case against Israel in the U.N.’s world court. Israel strongly rejects the charges. 

At Macalester College, students have for years advocated for the school to divest from fossil fuel companies and expanded their calls in the wake of the war. 

“All of us, as people of conscience, are compelled to action by the ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza funded by our tax dollars,” Mac for Palestine member Gabe Karsh said. “I refuse to allow these atrocities, which defy every Jewish value I was raised with, to be committed in the name of my people.”

What we know: University of Minnesota connections to Israel 

A graph
As of the end of March, the University of Minnesota has investments into 33 Israeli-based companies and eight U.S.-based companies doing business with the Israeli military.
Courtesy image

As part of its deal to end encampments, the U agreed to share initial information on its holdings in public companies on May 7 with complete information by May 17, but noted other investments cannot be shared due to non-disclosure agreements and other “legal constraints.” 

The May 7 message to student protesters shared an estimate that $2.4 million (or 0.11 percent of the U’s total endowment) is invested in stocks and bonds of publicly traded Israel-based companies. An additional $2.6 million (or 0.12 percent of the total fund) is invested in publicly traded “companies of interest, including select U.S.-based defense contractors.” 

All investments into 33 Israel-based companies and eight U.S. companies of interest including defense contractors are held indirectly through diversified funds, the U said.  

Students with the UMN Divest coalition plan to attend the U of M Board of Regents meeting on Friday to continue advocating for the university to divest.  

The U offers two study-abroad programs in Israel, which are currently suspended due to the war, according to U of M spokesperson Jake Ricker.  

Ricker did say that “while individual faculty may have collaborations or relationships, we have no institution-wide formal academic partnerships.” 

The U’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics website outlines that the university has “ongoing relationships” with aerospace and defense corporations including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Orbital ATK, which is now Northrup Grumman. Protesters would like these companies to be banned from recruiting on campus.  

The U’s College of Science and Engineering also has a “Co-op Program,” which is a cooperative between the university and the engineering industry to offer students a paid work experience over two semesters giving them hands-on experience in their area of study.  

The Co-op program lists Raytheon Technologies as a recent employer on their website. Raytheon is a weapons manufacturer that partners with Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems to make the Iron Dome, an air defense system that protects Israel. 

In a letter U administration sent to students on May 1, they outlined that they do not support “restricting student career opportunities by instituting a ban of employers” in campus or career fair settings. However, the letter said the U would be willing to facilitate a meeting with the U’s career services office to discuss ways students can advocate to their peers about potential employers.   

A crowd protests
People hold pro-Palestinian signs during a third consecutive day of protests at the University of Minnesota on April 25.
Tim Evans for MPR News

John Wentz, who teaches mechanical engineering at University of St. Thomas, offered an outside perspective to help explain why universities in general partner with companies, including defense companies, for their engineering programs.   

“The relationships with engineering companies of all sorts are just absolutely critical to having a strong school of engineering,” Wentz said. “Without our relationships with companies we really would kind of be a shell of what we are.” 

He said industrial engineering partnerships can take the form of internships or jobs, companies presenting work to clubs, project collaborations and companies donating supplies and equipment for labs. For example, St. Thomas has partnered with more than 350 companies of varying size in the past 15 years, Wentz said.  

Partnerships help the school make sure their curriculum meets what working engineers want now from employees, and companies often prioritize hiring recent graduates who have internship experience.  

“People think about academia as an ivory tower. But like within engineering, we really want to provide those students that experience and that guidance while they still have our support as faculty,” he said. 

What we know: Hamline University connections to Israel 

In their April meeting with the president and board chair, student protest organizers say they learned that Hamline does have “some bonds or investments” in Israeli companies.  

According to students, Murray and Watters told them they would look into how much Hamline money going into these companies.  

Hamline’s investments are primarily managed by a third-party investment company, Papas confirmed. That company estimated that about 0.1 percent of Hamline’s investments are in Israeli-owned companies. 

“We have not been granted a meeting with the Board of Trustees. We have not had a statement and we have not had full disclosure. So that’s why we’re still out,” student organizer Ellie Perra said on May 4.  

Students have not received any updates as of Tuesday, student organizer Ruby Schroeder said, but are expecting to hear back from administration on Friday.  

A person in a wheelchair is near a tent and a Palestinian flag
Student protest organizer Ruby Schroeder heads back to a tent in the pro-Palestinian protest encampment at Hamline University in St. Paul on May 4.
Anika Besst | MPR News

What we know: Macalester College connections to Israel 

Macalester students are asking their college to cut institutional ties supporting study-abroad programs at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Haifa in Israel. Protesters say students could still apply independently. 

President Suzanne Rivera said earlier this year that the university won’t end study-abroad programs in Israel for several reasons including “academic freedom and the college’s commitment to internationalism,” a spokesperson, Joe Linstroth, confirmed. 

Then, in March, Macalester students held a “die-in” in the college’s study away center. During the die-in they were able to confirm their first meeting with Rivera.   

In the meeting students requested the university create a “social responsibility committee” to review BDS requests and Linstroth confirmed that Rivera in April announced the creation of the committee “composed of students, faculty, staff and alumni to examine questions raised by some students regarding the college’s investments. The work of that committee is underway, and a report will be produced this summer,” Linstroth said.   

Student organizers said Mac for Palestine has not yet been invited to speak at any committee meetings. 

“No one has given us any information about the college’s investments that are not publicly available,” Mac for Palestine told MPR News. Macalester students have only been able to figure out a portion of the university’s investments. 

a pro-Palestinian banner
Macalester College students hold pro-Palestinian protests in April and May 2024.
Courtesy Oriane Sachs-Bernstein

What we know: MSU Mankato connections to Israel 

On Tuesday, a student protest organizer with Mavericks for Change and two faculty members met with MSU Mankato president Edward Inch.  

Jameel Haque, who teaches Middle Eastern and Islamic history at MSU Mankato, said he attended the meeting and learned the university doesn’t “really have that much to divest from.” 

Haque said the protesters who have been “pushing for change” since October will be refocusing the divestment push on the Minnesota State Board of Investment and and faculty retirement funds with TIAA. 

In 1985, amid protests calling divest from South Africa to protest apartheid, the Minnesota State Board of Investment began pulling money out of companies doing business in South Africa. 

peaceful protests at MSU Mankato
Jameel Haque, associate professor of history at MSU Mankato and director of Kessel Peace Institute, at a pro-Palestinian encampment on campus on April 28.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

How Minnesota colleges’ ties to Israel compare with other U.S. universities 

In addition to Columbia, schools including Harvard University, Stanford University, University of Southern California, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Brown University have seen protests and encampments of their own.  

The scope of protesters’ demands varies.  

At Columbia, protestors are demanding the school divest from companies they say are profiting from Israel’s invasion of Gaza including Google and Amazon. Students at Yale and Cornell want their institutions to divest from weapons manufacturers.  

The endowments of some U.S. universities are much larger than the endowments of schools protesting in Minnesota, which impacts their divestment plans and viability.  

For example, Columbia’s endowment was $13.64 billion for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2023, according to the university’s endowment performance information. The total value of the University of Minnesota endowment is $2.27 billion, as reported in materials emailed to student organizers. 

Brown, which has an endowment of $6.6 billion, struck a rare deal with pro-Palestinian protesters and agreed to hold a vote later this year on divesting. 

In terms of partnerships with defense contractors, Minnesota schools have smaller engineering programs than other universities with pro-Palestinian student protests, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hamline and Macalester don’t even have full engineering programs. 

Students lay on the floor
University of Minnesota students take part in a die-in protest at Coffman Union following the recent clearings of pro-Palestine solidarity encampments and the arrest of nine students for trespassing on April 24.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Have universities divested before? Did it work? 

Divestment has long been used as a tool of social movements and protests, especially at universities.

Over the past 15 years calls for divestment got students to successfully demand their universities to stop supporting fossil fuels. The movement began at Swarthmore College, a small school outside of Philadelphia. Hampshire College and Unity College became the first colleges in the United States to fully divest from fossil fuels.  

In the 1970s and ‘80s, students at Columbia and around the nation protested apartheid in South Africa. During this, they also successfully influenced their universities to sell off investments in companies doing business with South Africa.  

At the U, the organization Southern Africa Solidarity Committee fought in the late ‘70s for ending apartheid and white minority rule in South Africa through the withdrawal of political, military and economic involvement from the United States, according to the African Activist Archive. 

As for the possible impacts of divestment now, Ely of CU Denver says success depends on the goals of those supporting divesting. Ely explained that the financial consequences of divestment are muted because though university endowments are large, they are not big enough to move financial markets. 

“If the goal is to impose meaningful financial losses on specific firms, industries, or countries, then divestment by colleges and universities is unlikely to work,” Ely said. “But, if the goal is to gain attention and legitimacy for the cause through a symbolic action, then divestment may work, although such outcomes are much more difficult to measure.” 

As many universities near the end of their spring semester and seniors prepare for commencements, students across the nation continue to protest.  

Mac for Palestine member Oriane Sachs-Bernstein said the group knows the fight “will not be easy and may not happen during our time at Mac." 

“My goal is to help lay the foundations for the next generations of Macalester students to continue the work of dismantling globalized systems that profit from genocidal entities and apartheid systems. While being bombed, brutalized, dehumanized and starved, the people of Palestine are continuing to fight and so will we.”

A person uses water to wash graffiti
A worker power washes graffiti reading “don’t be complicit” from the exterior of Coffman Union at the University of Minnesota following the recent student protests in support of Gaza and in response to the arrest of nine students who were arrested for trespassing on April 24.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Correction (May 9, 2024): An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Macalester spokesperson Joe Linstroth. The story has been updated.