The Rules of Divestment

by Jennie Rose Halperin

A photo of the Gaza Solidarity encampment at Columbia University on April 21 2024.
Abbad Diraneyya [CC BY 1.0] via Wikimedia Commons

In 2009, as the Iraq War dragged on, I was asked by a friend to join the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) at Columbia University as a non-voting student representative. After the apartheid divestments of the 1970s, organized student pressure on university endowment decisions was relatively rare, only becoming a site of engagement in the early 2000s as endowments at large universities began to swell precipitously, in an exponential upward trend that continues today. 

The ACSRI was formed by the Board of Trustees in response to student pressure around climate investments, “to advise the University Trustees on ethical and social issues that arise in the management of the investments in the University's endowment.” Since the committee’s founding, Columbia has made only a few public investment decisions outside the purview of shareholder resolutions: divestment from tobacco; divestment from companies involved in the Sudanese genocide, which was reversed in 2021; divestment from “direct holdings” in private prisons. In addition, the committee made a few climate investment concessions after students went on hunger strike, and it stated that Columbia holds no direct investment in Russia. It has also rejected multiple proposals to divest from Israeli Apartheid.

Columbia Divestment for Climate Justice wrote in 2015 that the ACSRI is a “PR-friendly institutional barrier between students and… the Board of Trustees.” Based on my time on the committee, which consisted of a light agenda and dinner with a random and rotating assortment of faculty and trustees, this description is accurate. While the members were generally well-meaning, every meeting seemed to consist of planning the next meeting while enjoying catering in an oak-paneled conference room. 

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