Brown University President Explains Decision Against Israel Divestment, as Protesters Crash Freshmen Ceremony
The president of Brown University in Rhode Island explained why she chose not to abide by the demands of a student referendum calling for divestment from companies over their ties to Israel, as pro-BDS protesters disrupted a welcome ceremony for incoming freshmen.
The demonstration, which took place in a hall where members of class 2023 had gathered on Sunday, saw protesters chant, “Brown students voted yes on divest. Provost Locke: what’s next? End our complicity now,” the student-run Brown Daily Herald reported. The protesters also dropped leaflets promoting their campaign, according to video footage shared on social media.
The divestment referendum was held on campus from March 19 to 21 and in part called on the university to “divest all stocks, funds, endowment and other monetary instruments from companies complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine.”
Sixty-nine percent of the students who voted — representing 27.5 percent of the total undergraduate student population — backed the referendum, which some Zionist and Jewish students accused of employing biased language and heightening tensions on campus. President Christina Paxson rejected the referendum at the time, saying the polarizing move would wrongly turn the school’s endowment into “a political instrument,” while reiterating her view “that Brown should not embrace any of the planks of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement.”
In an April 10 interview with the Herald, which was published on Monday, Paxson explained that “divestment decisions — which are very rare — are made on the basis of a well-defined set of principles that the University has followed for a long time.”
“We don’t do this by popular vote … a referendum that garners the majority of whoever is voting is not the way that these types of issues are decided,” she added.
Paxson pointed out that while divestment is meant to target companies, rather than countries, accused of immoral behavior, the whole divestment campaign “had much more to do with people’s political views about Israel’s actions.”
She noted that students may still submit a petition to Brown’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies, which considers moral and ethical issues related to the university’s investments, and in 2013 rejected a divestment petition from Students for Justice in Palestine.
“If the University starts taking political positions, we run the risk of undermining academic freedom on the campus,” Paxson observed. “If we say we’re the university that opposes Israel, how can we have scholarship and debate on what’s happening in the Middle East? … So, we shouldn’t, in most cases, take political positions. We want members of our community to do the research and do the thinking to become really informed citizens, so they develop their own convictions and act accordingly.”
“By choosing not to divest, we are not saying anything about whether we’re for or against Israel,” she added, in response to claims that the choice to forgo divestment is itself a political position. “Our obligation is to run the endowment, to have great, long-term, risk-adjusted returns … and in very rare cases to apply moral principles to how we invest. And by not acting on every human rights issue that comes to the attention of the University, that certainly doesn’t mean that we’re condoning behavior.”
She also acknowledged sensitivities in the Jewish community. Leading advocacy groups in the US and worldwide have slammed the BDS campaign as antisemitic in tone and intent.
“I’ve talked to a number of students, as well as faculty members, who were deeply disturbed by the campaign, who felt like they couldn’t say what was on their mind,” Paxson said. “In a lot of people’s minds, … Israel and Jewish identity are so tightly intertwined that it’s impossible for people to think about these issues without believing that calls for divestment from Israel represent anti-Semitism.”
While expressing appreciation that students involved in the Brown Divest campaign “were very open at saying ‘this is not about anti-Semitism,'” she also acknowledged that antisemitism is on the rise domestically and worldwide, leaving people feeling threatened.
“The day after I wrote my letter, a large number of Corporation members got an email from somebody — I don’t know who it was, I don’t think it was anybody affiliated with Brown — that was one of the most vile, anti-Semitic emails I’ve ever seen,” she shared. “So, this kind of conversation has to be conducted carefully. … And the same is true on the other side. We have to guard against Islamophobia, too.”
The university’s Corporation includes a 12-person Board of Fellows and 42-person Board of Trustees.