Earlier this month, University of Minnesota (UMN) President Eric W. Kaler declared that a student-organized referendum to advance human rights and socially responsible investment could damage the UMN community’s efforts to promote peace in the Middle East.
In late February, a student coalition called UMN Divest launched a campaign demanding that the university act on its socially responsible investment policy. The referendum specifically asked:
Should the students of the University of Minnesota demand the Board of Regents divest from companies that are 1) complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, 2) maintaining and establishing private prisons and immigrant detention centers, or 3) violating Indigenous sovereignty?
The election took place March 5-7. On March 11, the All Campus Election Commission (ACEC) announced that the resolution passed 3392 to 3175, despite institutional obstacles and rules violations by those who opposed the measure.
On the final day of the election, President Kaler, despite claiming that he would not comment during elections in “full deference to the rights of our students to participate in the democratic process,” published a statement, which said that the mere existence of the referendum “fuel[s] discrimination toward Jewish students.”
After ACEC announced that the divestment resolution had passed, President Kaler released a second statement implying that the resolution, despite its singular focus on investment policy, somehow threatens the university’s “core values of academic freedom and … commitment to the free exchange of ideas.” The statement went on to say that the students' efforts to advocate for Palestinian rights could interfere with Middle East peace:
This referendum, while narrowly approved, exacerbates those divisions and thus may damage our ability to come together as a University community in common efforts as we hope for — and work for — peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.
The president’s statements failed to recognize the chilling impact that official condemnations like his can have on student activism.
UMN Divest also overcame frivolous challenges and rules violations by groups and individuals who opposed the divestment referendum. On February 25, for example, Minnesota Hillel filed a baseless complaint against the referendum. The complaint mischaracterized boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns and criticism of Israel, falsely equating both with discrimination against Jewish students. The university investigated Hillel’s complaint and found no violations of campus policies.
Throughout the voting process, UMN Divest also documented violations of the campus election rules by groups opposing the referendum, including Students Supporting Israel and Minnesota Hillel. UMN Divest submitted several complaints to ACEC, which found that the opposing groups had violated election rules. However, ACEC informed UMN Divest that they would take no action beyond speaking with the groups involved.
The tactics used at UMN are not new. In February 2017, administrators at the University of South Florida erected bureaucratic hurdles in an effort to interfere with a similar divestment vote. In May 2017, the president of Cal State Long Beach sent a letter to student senators trying to discourage them from voting for divestment by blaming divestment resolutions for white nationalist vandalism and attacks. Like both those campuses, students at UMN succeeded despite those hurdles.