How Democratizing Universities Would Supercharge the Pro-Palestine Divestment Movement

By Akin Olla, Waging Nonviolence, June 12, 2024

If university boards were controlled by the communities they impact, we could redirect billions of dollars away from war and corporations that harm people and the planet.

The pro-Palestinian divestment movement has erupted across the country, after over a decade of bubbling and stirring under the guidance of organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine. Students have built encampments, led walkouts and passed student government resolutions demanding that their universities cease investing their endowments in companies that uphold Israel’s genocidal apartheid system.

Some student governments have even passed resolutions preventing their own budgets from being used to benefit Israel’s regime in any way. University of California Davis was the first to do so, blocking off its $20 million budget from genocide-supporting companies. This of course pales in comparison to the full demands of the students in the University of California, or UC, system, the divestment of its entire $27 billion endowment.

These divestment fights are important and open up a path towards a struggle that can make divestment permanent, and change the country’s political landscape forever. The power to divest lies in the hands of unelected college governing boards and any movement that can seize even a small portion of that power will have the potential to redirect billions of dollars away from Israel, oil companies and any corporation or entity that seeks to harm the oppressed and the planet.

While boards are currently dominated by Zionists, Democratic and Republican party political lackeys, and corporate CEOs, they should be put to a vote and under the control of those most impacted by colleges — students, faculty, staff, alumni and the communities that surround them. This idea isn’t new. The first university in Western history, the University of Bologna, was founded as a student-governed mutual aid society, and students across the U.S. gained small amounts of governing power during the 1960s and 1970s. It is not guaranteed that democratically-elected boards will deliver justice, but they are significantly more likely to than the undemocratic boards we currently have.

A fight for more democratic boards could place the question of divestment into the hands of students and faculty and move large amounts of funding from genocide and toward social movement projects. And even if it fails, the threat to the power of boards could lead to them buckling on the reasonable demand of divestment from genocide.

The board game

Most colleges have some form of a board of trustees (sometimes called a board of regents or governors when they oversee an entire system like the University of Texas or the UC system) that serves as their main governing body. These boards are the ones that use endowments to invest in corporations that bulldoze the homes of Palestinians and support Israel’s army in murdering children.

While student governments and faculty senates exist, and sometimes have independent budgets like within the UC system, they have little to no power over the larger decisions of a university. And while administrators have a lot of say in day-to-day campus affairs, most of their decisions and direction come from the board of trustees or the college president or chancellor, who are chosen by the board.

Private boards of trustees are usually appointed by the current trustees, while public college trustees are almost exclusively appointed by state governors. This gives state governors disproportionate control of higher education. The consequences of this are clear in places like Florida, where Ron DeSantis was able to replace the progressive trustees of New College with his conservative minions overnight.

While most governors aren’t as terrible as DeSantis, they all universally prioritize the needs of the rich over ordinary people. Most governors also prioritize Israel over any form of justice for Palestine. In 2017, every single governor in the country signed a letter stating opposition to the pro-Palestine movement. And a majority of states have passed anti-Palestine protest laws.

The preferences of governors show up in the trustees they appoint. Most boards of trustees are packed with CEOs instead of professors and students. A few colleges are considering divestment, but only two boards in the country have come out in support of divestment. The boards also don’t look like the rest of the country. In 2020, 80 percent of private trustees were white, and two out of three were male. Eighty-two percent were over the age of 50, and nearly a quarter were over the age of 70. UC’s board — and public boards in general — is more diverse, but it’s packed with millionaire CEOs, charter school executives and former politicians. This diverse board has refused to budge on divesting from Israel and instead has orchestrated the raiding of multiple encampments and the arrests of hundreds of people.

While replacing Zionist governors (and thus Zionist board members) may seem like the answer, redrawing the entire concept of trustees could be more strategic in the long term.

People’s boards

Rebooting the entire system of trustees would take a lot of work, but it’s feasible. A 2000 bill in the Wisconsin State Legislature proposed that the governor-appointed board be replaced with an elected one. Of the proposed 15-member board, one would be an elected superintendent of public instruction, nine would be individually elected from each congressional district, while the remainder would be elected by the student body of the statewide University of Wisconsin system.

This bill failed to pass but reforming university governing boards isn’t impossible nor a thing of the past. In 2019, the University of Maryland’s board added a second student seat to its board. In February of this year, state senators in New Mexico moved to weaken their governor’s power in appointing regents. Nevada already has an elected board of regents embedded in its state constitution, but state legislators moved to strip it of its supreme control over higher education in 2020. Their efforts were fortunately blocked by voters through ballot measure, but the vote came down to a less than 1 percent difference. This kind of power struggle over the board isn’t uncommon but has often been limited to fights between politicians, not the demands of social movements on the scale of the movement for Palestine.

Student trustees, which already exist at many universities, were fought for and won by student movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Student activists took over student governments and pushed for various forms of student power. Leaders like David Harris, the student government president of Stanford University in 1966, went as far as to advocate for the full abolition of the university Board of Trustees and full student control over student regulations — as well as the end of university cooperation with the Vietnam War.

Massachusetts was the first state to grant students not only seats on their university governing boards, but the ability for students to elect their own trustees. This 1969 bill was passed, according to some state legislatures, to appease campus militants.

In states like Indiana, students leveraged the atmosphere of unrest, access to media outlets and their new voting power from the 26th amendment — which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote — to push for student inclusion on governing boards. They built institutions like the Indiana Student Association, a statewide student government, to create a unified student voice capable of passing legislation. In 1975 new student trustee roles were created for each public college in the state, though they were unfortunately appointed by the governor due to a political compromise that would prevent each flagship campuses from dominating their regional satellites in trustee elections. To this day many student trustees are sadly either appointed or lack voting power.

Those student trustees with voting power are still important, though it seems like the left has forgotten. Right-wing activists are still aware of such potential, in 2014 a millionaire Zionist funneled money toward pro-Israel student government leaders and helped secure the appointment of one of their members to the only student seat on the UC system’s board of regents.

Of course, winning these reforms would not necessarily make the universities more pro-Palestine, but there is evidence that a student, labor and community composition could shift the views of their governing boards in a more progressive direction.

While almost no university board has come out in support of free Palestine, student governments and faculty unions across the country have. Many of these student governments, like those at Rutgers and Barnard went through the referendum route to approve their decisions, meaning they had to win majority support on campus before declaring their support. On the community front, there have been over a hundred towns and cities that have at least endorsed a ceasefire. It is not a guarantee, but a more democratic board would more likely reflect the opinions of the 55 percent of Americans who disapprove of Israel’s actions in Gaza and the 39 percent of voters who believe Israel is actively committing genocide.

The trustees of the late 60s are a great example of this potential. A survey of trustees under the age of 30, presumably students and recent alumni, in 1969 found that 93 percent of them described their political views as similar to that of Martin Luther King Jr., and 61 percent described their views as akin to Black Panther Party member H. Rap Brown. Not a single young trustee identified as conservative and not a single one identified their politics as similar to Richard Nixon, compared to 62 percent of all other trustees.

The means

This demand should not replace the work that is already being done by students or organizing directly focused on Israel. It should complement and build on the natural coalition that is already forming and generate new coalitions and political projects adjacent to those fighting for divestment and shutting down weapons producers.

Student governments can play the same role they played in the 1960s and 1970s, using their funding and legitimacy to push for legislation, while student radicals run in campus elections to gain more access to power and affirm the popularity of the movement.

Outside of campus, pushing for more representative versions of the bill from Wisconsin could give the community wing of the movement a way to contribute directly to the fight that students are waging, and increase the self-interest of community members like those in Philadelphia who are struggling against universities that are backing the gentrification of working-class neighborhoods. Such a coalition was already established in October 2023, as the University of Pennsylvania’s fossil fuel divestment movement joined forces with the struggle to “Save the People’s Townhomes” in Philadelphia’s historic Black Bottom neighborhood.

Democratizing college governing boards could also bring in pro-democracy organizations concerned with corporate influence, and provide roles for alumni groups like Alumni for Justice in Palestine once the school year is up. The boards could be split by constituents, allowing students and faculty to vote through their already existing structures, and municipal or state voters to elect representatives like those presented in the Wisconsin legislation. The fight could be framed as an anti-corruption campaign aimed at removing unaccountable, unelected boards and replacing them with democratically elected people’s boards that build on the limited democratic infrastructure that we have in this country.

This summer, students, faculty, workers and alumni could knock on doors across their states, asking neighbors to play a role in reshaping higher education and taking a piece of the country’s institutions back. It would be a great compliment to the mass protests that we’re already in the midst of.

This pressure could seize support from state politicians looking for a win on higher education that won’t cost the state money. The only losers in this case would be individual governors and current board members, perfect targets for campaigns that can easily cast them as overpowered and inefficient.

Private universities could not go this route, but by focusing on organizing alumni as well as the general public they can back their universities into isolation. A national wing of the campaign could be created, mandating that all universities that receive federal funding in any fashion — which is basically all of them — must engage in some form of democratic governance structure. Even if these campaigns don’t succeed, they will threaten and likely politically weaken the people preventing college divestments from Israel.

In my experience as a former student organizer and board member of the U.S. Student Association — which contained many of the statewide student associations formed in the wake of the 26th amendment — campus administrators are more likely to give in to policy demands when you’re also threatening their very existence. I was part of a broader “student union” movement that sought not only to reshape our stifling student governments but also to democratize campus. I found that once we built larger coalitions that pushed for more aggressive demands like shared governance, administrators were more likely to budge on less threatening proposals like replacing food vendors and supporting campus diversity efforts.

This is not dissimilar to non-democratic governments like Czarist Russia or those targeted by the Arab Spring, who — when outright murder wasn’t an option — opted for long-requested reforms when faced with demands that would strip them of their power.

In social psychology, this is referred to as the door-in-the-face technique. The idea is that you want to make a demand that is so big that it could lead to you having the door slammed in your face first. This is the idea you’re more likely to convince someone to a smaller ask after first making a larger more demanding one.

The term comes from a 1975 study in which participants were first asked to mentor an incarcerated person for two years and then asked to take kids to the zoo for an afternoon. Participants who were first asked to become mentors were more likely to choose the zoo option than participants who were only asked to take the kids to the zoo. The phenomenon has since been replicated many times, as recently as 2021.

By threatening to seize the power of these governing boards, we make divestment more possible and open up a chance to level out the playing field for the left.

The revolution could be funded

If a movement can successfully transform the board of trustees, or at least expand the number of student trustee seats won by previous generations, the benefits could change the terrain of student organizing and the left. Expanding student, worker and community representation, and making these seats democratically elected, could transform the class composition and priorities of boards across the country. Seventy percent of American voters at least support a ceasefire, and more representative boards would likely reflect that fact and make policies like divestment more likely to pass. Not just divestment from Israel but from fossil fuels, private prisons, corporations that exploit immigrants and all harmful industries.

This should always be done in conjunction with ongoing movements and not done arbitrarily or seeking to invest only in the purest of the pure — this is likely impossible under capitalism as we know it. Coalitions could be created to maintain majority control of boards, creating a permanent bridge between student movements and electoral organizing that could serve as a basis for a third party. The opportunity does not stop at divestment.

Aside from students, faculty, and the community having more control over all university operations — adding teeth to student government and faculty organizations — a redesign of governing boards could lead to opportunities for transformative investment. Endowments currently operate off an infinite growth model, but large endowments that could afford it could put money into movement organizations and research aimed at transforming the rest of society.

While it is doubtful that all of these new boards would be progressive or radical, the University of Michigan, and the systems of the University of California, the University of Texas, and Texas A&M have a combined endowment of over $100 billion alone. Compare this to the $16 billion endowment of the Ford Foundation, one of the largest liberal foundations in the U.S. These large endowments could be the strategic target of a national movement, or it could focus on states like California and Wisconsin that already have some form of student representation on their boards.

The endowments from these universities could serve as a powerful counter to large, slow-moving and often conservative foundations and place large amounts of money back into public hands. Endowments are, after all, built on money from wealthy people and foundations that should have otherwise been taxed, and investments made from profits that workers fundamentally generate. Some money could be kept in investments to maintain minimal growth of the endowment, but billions could be spent on supporting the growth of the pro-Palestinian cause and the broader movement for the liberation of the global working class.

This change would take a lot of work to achieve and maintain it. But trust in universities is at a record low, and unlike other proposals to fix higher education, this would neither cost state or federal governments a dime nor require pressuring college administrators themselves. Similar to the Rutgers South African Divestment movement — which forced Rutgers to divest by passing a bill through the state legislature — state governments could be used to supersede the power of universities.

At the same time, such a measure would unite student forces with campus workers and municipal and state voters, who would have a self-interest in having more say in the colleges they pour their labor and tax money into. And private universities could be forced into the new paradigm through federal legislation that mandates democratic boards for all universities that benefit from federal funding.

The divestment movement has a lot of momentum, and I have faith in organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine, Dissenters and the Palestinian Youth Movement to achieve victory. But movements must always seek opportunities to permanently change the ground and conditions on which they wage struggle. And there is a clear opportunity to seize back the bounty of the masses and put them to use for Palestine and beyond.

Akin Olla is a Nigerian-American political strategist and the host of This Is The Revolution podcast. He is also a lead trainer with Momentum, a mass movement training community and a member of Philly Socialists.





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