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University protesters want their schools to divest from Israel over its war in Gaza

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Disclose. Divest. We will not stop. We will not rest. Disclose. Divest. We will not stop. We will not rest. Disclose.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Disclose. Divest. We will not stop. We will not rest. Disclose. Divest. We will not stop. We will not rest. Disclose.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Protesters like these at NYU and Columbia this week want their schools to divest from Israel over its war in Gaza. So what does divesting actually look like, and what impact would it have? Chris Marsicano is an assistant professor of educational studies and public policy at Davidson College in North Carolina. He studied the impact of university divestments and joins me now. Good morning, and welcome to the program.

CHRIS MARSICANO: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: So let's start with the strategy behind a divestment campaign. Students are asking their U.S. universities to pull their money from Israel. What's the goal?

MARSICANO: The goal is basically to make it so that universities are not spending money from their large endowments on businesses that help the Israeli war effort or that are connected in deep ways to Israel. So the idea is to remove funding and investments from Israeli companies, companies that have ties to Israeli companies and weapons manufacturers and defense companies.

FADEL: So how much of an impact would it make on these companies, or on Israel, if universities were to divest from them?

MARSICANO: It's not particularly clear. We know that when universities have divested from fossil fuels, that hasn't made much of a dent in terms of the stock prices of those fossil fuel companies, and it doesn't seem to affect the university endowments. It also has some parallels to South Africa in the '80s. But even then, the research shows that most of the divestment efforts mainly led to a global political movement. And I don't know that we're there yet with divestment from Israel due to the Gaza conflict.

FADEL: And, of course, the South Africa example was during apartheid. But if the impact of divestment is negligible, why do protesters keep pushing for it?

MARSICANO: Bringing political will to the table, making sure that there's a global political movement towards peace is really what the protesters' goal probably is here. And anytime you have Yale or Harvard or Northwestern or USC or Columbia in the news, people pay attention. And so this is probably one of the ways in which protesters are trying to gather the attention of Israeli leaders. And we know that Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, just yesterday mentioned these protests in a speech.

FADEL: Now, let's go back to examples where universities like Columbia did heed calls to divest. I'm thinking of South Africa here. At the time, what impact did that have? I mean, you talked about a global movement.

MARSICANO: Yeah. So in - around 1985, about 55 colleges and universities had divested from investments in South Africa - about 100 companies - all building more and more political pressure on the South African government. It doesn't seem to be that in the long term, it crippled the South African economy. And that's not terribly surprising. It would be surprising if any American university or a college had a substantial portion of its portfolio in South Africa at the time.

FADEL: Could protests like we're seeing now really spreading to campuses all across the country actually backfire when it comes to their goals?

MARSICANO: It's certainly possible, especially because it's very difficult for universities to divest at all. I mean, universities and endowment managers are not stock pickers. They're not managing an E-Trade account. They're doing what most of us who have a retirement plan are doing. They're investing in index funds and private equity. And because those funds are very complicated and package many investment opportunities together, it's really difficult to even know which firms are doing significant business in Israel. And divesting from those funds is very expensive. So if the goal is divestment, it becomes very, very hard for universities to actually achieve that goal.

FADEL: That's Chris Marsicano. He's founding director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College in North Carolina. Thank you so much for your time.

MARSICANO: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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