University of Michigan regents won’t divest; oppose Israel sanctions

ANN ARBOR, MI – Members of the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents have declined to form a committee to investigate divesting the university’s endowment from certain companies alleged to commit human rights violations against Palestinians.

Six of the eight Board of Regents members signed a joint statement Thursday, Dec. 14, noting that they strongly opposed any action involving the boycott, divestment or sanction of Israel.

Regents Shauna Ryder Diggs and Kathy White did not sign the statement. Diggs noted in an email that she is in favor of addressing statements, deliberations and responses to a resolution in an open meeting.

The statement by the majority of regents reads, “We must consider the broad landscape of university stakeholders including all students, our faculty, staff, alumni and the citizens of the State of Michigan.

“We remain committed to the university’s longstanding policy to shield the endowment from political pressures.”

UM Student Government President Anushka Sarkar presented a resolution calling on university leaders to investigate divestment from companies that contribute to human rights violations against Palestinians.

In a letter to the student community at UM stating she would sign the resolution, however, Sarkar addressed some of the controversies surrounding it that might undermine efforts to build campus support toward future efforts to have the university appoint an ad hoc committee to investigate the ethical and moral implications of its investments.

Sarkar said she provided some changes to the resolution that she presented to the Board of Regents on Dec. 7, removing any mention of Israel or specific companies alleged to have committed human rights violations against Palestinians.

Initially brought to the assembly by the student organization Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), the resolution included companies like Boeing, Hewlett-Packard and United Technologies – all of which SAFE alleged contributed to the attack on Palestinians in occupied territories.

References to those specific companies were removed from a separate version of the resolution Sarkar presented to the Board of Regents, with the intent of preserving the spirit of the resolution – to investigate UM investments that may be tied to the violation of Palestinian human rights – without unnecessarily targeting a country or faith, or limiting the scope of the committee to three companies.

Sarkar said Thursday that she was not surprised the Board of Regents opted not to investigate divestment, but hopes the spirit of the resolution she submitted can be a starting point for further discussions down the road.

“… I fully anticipated that the Board would reject the version of the resolution that passed the Assembly because of its mention of Israel,” Sarkar said. “That is why I offered a redlined version that removes mention of Israel and the particular companies, but obviously, even that version of the resolution was rejected by the Board of Regents. I believe the redlined version of the resolution should serve as a starting point for future versions of this resolution in coming years.  

“I believe the authors and advocates of this resolution do not intend to target Jewish people, and I do not believe that criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic,” Sarkar noted in her guidance to CSG members. “I believe the University of Michigan should not invest in companies that endanger the lives of Palestinian people.”

SAFE had brought similar resolutions before CSG since 2014 that were voted down before the resolution passed with 23 members voting in favor and 17 against the motion stating that three companies “violate Palestinian human rights,” while five members abstained. The resolution was passed after 10 previous attempts since 2002. 

University of Michigan student government calls to divest from companies in Israel

Sarkar said the “lack of explicit clarity” surrounding the initial resolution’s intent caused her to caution the campus community that advocates for the resolution in coming years, including SAFE’s first version of the resolution proposed to the assembly, which included citations from the “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction” (BDS) Movement. The citations ultimately were replaced when Jewish students pointed out the discrepancy “between the intent of the authors to separate this resolution from the BDS movement versus its continued and clear ties to the movement,” Sarkar said.

She also was critical of the CSG assembly’s vote to block UM professor Victor Lieberman from speaking prior to the vote at the meeting, with some members claiming that allowing him to speak would have created a power gradient between professors and students. Lieberman had been allowed to speak against previous divestment resolutions in the past.

“Voting to prevent Victor Lieberman from speaking fostered uncontextualized dialogue around this issue, especially as another speaker with parallel credentials could have spoken, too,” Sarkar said. “As such, CSG will conduct a review of its guest speaker practices and regulations in advance of the next Assembly meeting.”

After the resolution initially passed on Nov. 15, UM noted it has been the university’s longstanding policy to shield the endowment from political pressures and to base its investment decisions solely on financial factors such as risk and return.

The Board of Regents echoed those sentiments in their joint statement Thursday.

“Most importantly, our university has long been a community that seeks to study and improve the human condition through our research and scholarship,” the statement reads. “We work together to better understand the most complex challenges we face on campus and beyond. We do this work through active engagement in the world around us. To boycott, divest or sanction Israel offends these bedrock values of our great university.”

UM officially divested resources on two occasions in its history – from South Africa in 1978, and in 2000, when it divested from the tobacco industry. In 2015, UM CSG approved a resolution to create an ad hoc committee to investigate endowment investments in the fossil fuel industry.

UM’s investment policy calls on its Board of Regents to appoint the ad hoc committee to investigate the ethical and moral implications of its investments when the following conditions have been met:

  • The concern to be explored must express the broadly and consistently held position of the campus community over time;
  • There must be reason to believe that the behavior or action in question may be antithetical to the core mission and values of the University; and
  • There must be reason to believe that the organization, industry or entity to be singled out may be uniquely responsible for the problems identified.

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