NYU Philosophy Graduate Students Call for Divestment


“Six months on from the brutal Hamas attacks of October 7th, more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed… Some 1.9 million people… have been displaced. Over two hundred aid workers have been killed during the conflict. At least 103 reporters are dead… Gaza is facing a famine. As long as it continues to invest in war, NYU is implicated in this devastation. Divestment is an issue of dire moral urgency…”

That’s from a statement issued by some current and former graduate students in the philosophy program at New York University.

In the statement, they make several demands regarding police presence on campus, allowing peaceful protest, disclosure of the university’s financial investments, and the divestment “from weapons manufacturers, war profiteers, and other companies complicit in the Israeli military’s ongoing war in Gaza.”

The full statement is below.

Statement on Divestment and NYU’s Response to Protesters

We, the undersigned graduate students and recent alumni of the NYU Department of Philosophy, join the NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors and members of the faculties of the Departments of Philosophy, History, Sociology, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, the School of Law and many others in condemning the NYU administration’s decision to call NYPD officers to arrest peaceful protesters on the night of April 22nd and the morning of May 3rd. We also stand in solidarity with the graduate students of the Columbia University Department of Philosophy, who released a statement on April 29th decrying similar police involvement in peaceful protest on their campus.

On April 22nd, NYPD officers, many in riot gear, arrested over 100 peaceful protestors at NYU’s Gould Plaza, including students and faculty. Since then, the past two weeks have seen NYPD officers use stun grenades, tasers and pepper spray to injure student protesters at Columbia and CCNY; faculty members violently slammed to the ground by police at Emory; and violent, hours-long, explicitly racist assaults on peaceful protesters at UCLA. Despite nationwide condemnation of these events, including condemnation of violence committed specifically by the NYPD, NYU’s administration once again made the irresponsible decision on May 3rd to invite NYPD officers onto campus. These officers arrested a further 14 students who were protesting peacefully at the Greene Street encampment. The increasingly brutal responses of universities across the country to mostly peaceful student protesters have only worked to further erode trust and create a cross-campus atmosphere of antagonism and fear. Rather than follow this dark path, we urge NYU administrators to deescalate by removing NYPD presence from campus and engaging with protesters in good faith.

Beyond these issues of free speech, we call on the university to directly address the demands of the anti-war movement. Institutional neutrality on questions of academic interest is essential for free inquiry. But, for better or worse, the modern university is not merely a place of learning: universities are also employers, landlords and investors. It is reasonable and correct for students and employees to hold these institutions accountable for their actions as economic entities. Indeed, given the clear academic interest in the question of the legitimacy of the ongoing war in Gaza, we believe that the university can only maintain institutional neutrality by disaffiliating itself from the companies involved in prosecuting that war.

But divestment from war is not just an academic question. Six months on from the brutal Hamas attacks of October 7th, more than 34,000 Palestinians – most of them women and children – have been killed by the disproportionate Israeli military response. Some 1.9 million people, the vast majority of Gaza’s population, have been displaced. Over two hundred aid workers have been killed during the conflict. At least 103 reporters are dead; they make up over 75% of the total number of reporters killed worldwide in 2023. Gaza is facing a famine. As long as it continues to invest in war, NYU is implicated in this devastation. Divestment is an issue of dire moral urgency, and demands an immediate response.

Some have argued that NYU’s investments are simply too tied up in a complex network of managed funds and diversified assets to be efficiently divested; others, like NYU SVP for Public Affairs John Beckman, have claimed in public statements that divesting from implicated institutions would have financial consequences for NYU’s endowment. It is impossible to assess the force of these concerns unless NYU fully discloses its current investment portfolio. Even without disclosure, however, neither claim provides a meaningful defense against divestment. Investment portfolios of NYU’s scale have a range of options, and the administration has an obligation to explore these thoroughly and in good faith. NYU cannot claim to run an ethical institution unless it is capable of investing in a socially responsible manner that involves full oversight and knowledge of its investments.

To all of these ends, we demand that the NYU administration:

    • Immediately remove all NYPD presence from campus,
    • Pledge to never again call police to arrest NYU students, faculty, staff or community members for exercising their right to peaceful protest,
    • Provide general amnesty for and reverse any outstanding disciplinary measures, such as there are, against any and all students, staff and faculty members involved in peaceful protest,
    • Disclose all investments and financial assets,
    • Engage in a good-faith process to divest from weapons manufacturers, war profiteers, and other companies complicit in the Israeli military’s ongoing war in Gaza.

Precedent is on the students’ side. Divestment is possible. In 1985, NYU divested from South African Apartheid. In the last few years, universities across the country, including NYU, have begun divesting from fossil fuels. As of this week, Brown University has announced that it will formally consider divestment from the Israeli military. Faculty at Pomona College have already voted in favor of divestment. We urge NYU to listen to its students and stand on the right side of history.

Signed:

Carl Christian Abrahamsen (graduate student)
Cristina Ballarini (graduate student)
Evan Behrle (graduate student)
Banafsheh Beizaei (alum)
Daniel Brinkerhoff Young (alum)
Caroline Bowman (alum, lecturer)
Preston Budd (graduate student)
Clifford Carr (graduate student)
Tez Clark (graduate student)
Sophie Côte (graduate student)
Nikhil Dominic (graduate student)
John Fan (graduate student)
Tom Forster (graduate student)
Iliana Gioulatou (graduate student)
Noga Gratvol (graduate student)
Eugene Ho (graduate student)
Jenny Judge (alum)
Bin Hui Kwon (graduate student)
Clara Lingle (graduate student)
Annette Martín (alum)
Ariel Melamedoff (graduate student)
Laura Mora (graduate student)
William Nava (graduate student)
Samuel Rogers (graduate student)
Rose Ryan Flinn (graduate student)
Alec Sault (graduate student)
Soren Schlassa (graduate student)
Daniel Sharp (alum)
Kimon Sourlas-Kotzamanis (graduate student)
Christopher Sun (graduate student)
Rioghnach Theakston (graduate student)
Justin Zacek (graduate student)

 

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Bar Luzon
Bar Luzon
19 days ago

Although this reflects the opinion of the majority of grad students at NYU (and some alumni), I just want to stress that this is by no means the only opinion. Some grad students–for example, me–find it regrettable (to say the least) that, first, the issues of free speech and divestment have been tied up together in this way, and, second, that there was not discussion among all grad student that preceded the writing of this letter (rather, it was written by a small group that then allowed people about 24 hours to sign).

Bar Luzon
Bar Luzon
Reply to  Bar Luzon
19 days ago

Sorry, about 13 hours to sign, not 24.

Fellow NYU grad student
Fellow NYU grad student
Reply to  Bar Luzon
19 days ago

As a fellow NYU grad student I feel embarrassed by this headline, and I would like to see it changed from the generic to the existential (“some NYU philosophy graduate students”). To reiterate Bar’s comment: this in no way reflects the opinion of all graduate students. Indeed I wonder how many signed the letter primarily because they wanted to voice their opposition to the police action rather than because they actively support divestment

Alan Barat
Alan Barat
Reply to  Bar Luzon
18 days ago

Third NYU grad student, here. I don’t agree that the headline should be changed, but I otherwise thank and agree with my colleagues.

The only non-silly request here is divestment, though I don’t agree with it.

Fellow NYU grad student
Fellow NYU grad student
Reply to  Alan Barat
18 days ago

I count 26 out of 42 graduate students among the signees, which is roughly 62%. At least to my ears, the generic makes it sound like more.

Grad Student
Reply to  Bar Luzon
18 days ago

I think it’s pretty clear from the fact that there’s a list of signatures attached indicating precisely which students endorse the stated opinion.

Fellow NYU grad student
Fellow NYU grad student
Reply to  Grad Student
18 days ago

Well, it’s not immediately transparent to the reader how many graduate students the list leaves out, or even whether any graduate students are left out. Bar’s comment clarifies that and moreover spells out a concrete alternative view.

Platypus
Platypus
Reply to  Bar Luzon
18 days ago

I find it frustrating that so many academics are doubling down on divestment from Israel as a political goal. Most people don’t support divestment! The more you highlight it, the more you’re likely to turn people off of your cause.

In a recent YouGov poll, only 12% of respondents said that divesting from Israel was “just and feasible,” while 32% said it was “unjust and infeasible.” (35% said “not sure.”) Also, the support for divestment was strongest among young people (17% “just and feasible”), who are the least likely to vote. The median voter is over 50, and older Americans say they hate divestment. Among people 65 and up, only 7% called it “just and feasible” compared to 56% who said the opposite.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine the protests were focused on the war itself, with protesters telling stories of Palestinian victims, or perhaps raising awareness about the US’s history of no-strings-attached military aid for Israel.

How much would the Israel lobby pay to shift the target away from their own war crimes and onto American universities’ stock portfolios?

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Platypus
18 days ago

At one time, people also didn’t support ending segregation! Does that mean we shouldn’t have advocated ending segregation? Of course not! This argument is laughably bad.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
18 days ago

I took the point to be that *if* what you want to do is try to stop the Israel/Gaza war, it’s inadvisable to focus on goals which will only affect the Israel/Palestinian conflict on much longer timescales and which will lose support from the broader US public, who are increasingly troubled by the immediate bloodshed but not sympathetic to the longer term and more maximalist goals of the divestment movement.

If your main focus is the longer term project of ending the post-1967 occupation or even establishing a right of return or dismantling the Israeli state, then it would make sense to want to change hearts and minds over a longer period. But that’s a substantive difference about priorities.

Last edited 18 days ago by David Wallace
Platypus
Platypus
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
18 days ago

That’s a good objection to the view that

you should only support popular causes.

But my view is that

other things equal, you should try to avoid reframing debates in ways that lose support for your cause.

That’s why I object to the choice to shift the focus of discussion from Israel’s actions to those of university administrators.

Disillusioned Grad student
Disillusioned Grad student
Reply to  Platypus
18 days ago

See the comment below. This is something students have a closer connection to and feel responsible for due to universities being their institutions.

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Platypus
18 days ago

The other thing that makes no sense is that universities don’t have the power to stop the war! They do have the power to divest, which is why if you’re a student advocating the latter makes far more sense!

Last edited 18 days ago by Jonathan Kendrick
Disillusioned Grad student
Disillusioned Grad student
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
18 days ago

Yeah I’m kind of baffled by the argument there. If students focused primarily on calls to the Israeli and US govt to end the war, the same commenters here would mock them for doing it at universities which have no say in foreign policy.

Divestment is a call to get their own tuition money and institutions they are a part of to take a stance.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Disillusioned Grad student
18 days ago

Hang on. The defense of the protesters has normally been that they’re exercising their free speech rights, I.e. the protests are a speech act. If so, it doesn’t matter who owns the space they’re protesting in, only who hears them.

This sounds more as if the protests are attempted acts of coercion: “divest or we will continue to disrupt your campus”. If that’s the case then I don’t see any real reason for universities to tolerate them – and strong reasons of principle *not* to accede to their demands.

Gerard
Gerard
Reply to  David Wallace
18 days ago

The reason for universities to tolerate the protests is that the protests’ demands are good, and what the universities are doing is bad.

There may be strong reasons of principle not to accede to their demands, but they can’t be dispositive reasons, because universities should accede to demands that are good.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Gerard
18 days ago

The means used also matter as to whether demands should be acceded to. I think all universities should adopt the Kalven Principles, but if free speech radicals take the Provost’s grandchildren hostage and threaten to kill them unless the university adopts the Kalven Principles, the right response doesn’t involve accepting the demands: it involves a hostage-release negotiator backed up by a SWAT team.

(For the avoidance of doubt: I’m establishing a logical principle, not suggesting a moral equivalence.)

oxan
oxan
Reply to  David Wallace
18 days ago

David, just trying to understand your principle here: when the lone protester stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square and refused to move, is that coercion by the protester of the Chinese government? That would seem to follow from your apparent endorsement of the idea that protest aimed at disrupting the workings of an institution in order to effect change in that institution is coercive. Sure, NYU or Colombia don’t have quite the repressive power of the Chinese government, even with the NYPD seemingly at their beck and call, but I struggle to see a difference of principle between the cases.

David Wallace
Reply to  oxan
18 days ago

Coercive things aren’t necessarily bad. The Normandy landings were coercive.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
18 days ago

(Also, “NYU or Col[u]mbia don’t have quite the repressive power of the Chinese government” is accurate in the same sense as “Los Angeles isn’t quite as hot as the Sun”.)

Aghast Junior
Aghast Junior
Reply to  David Wallace
18 days ago

This sounds more as if the protests are attempted acts of coercion: “divest or we will continue to disrupt your campus.” If that’s the case….

With all due respect, David, I find myself astonished by this remark. What I want to say is: of course (many of) the protests are attempted acts of coercion, as many protests in general are. I find it shocking that uiu seem to be surprised by this. Two of the most popular chants at these protests are (i) the tried-and-true “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” and (ii) “Disclose! Divest! We will not stop! We will not rest!” The whole idea is to disrupt business as usual to force universities’ hands.

It doesn’t follow from this, of course, that protesters are in the right, nor that universities should tolerate them or accede to their demands (although, to show my cards, I think the protesters are in the right and universities should both tolerate them and accede to the demands). My goal in this comment isn’t to defend the protesters. It is simply to register shock that you—and perhaps others?—are unfamiliar with one of the very basic functions of protests.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Aghast Junior
17 days ago

I understand perfectly well that protests sometimes have this kind of goal and strategy. My point is just that insofar as they do, protesters have no grounds to object that their rights of free speech and free assembly are being violated if universities choose not to tolerate it.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Aghast Junior
17 days ago

(I should also say that the two responses to my comment have been “of course it’s not coercive, otherwise the people who were murdered at Tiananmen Square were coercive” and “of course it’s coercive, how do you think protests work?” But I think the point is that Aghast Junior and I are using ‘coercive’ in an inherently morally-neutral way, whereas oxam is using it as inherently moralized, or perhaps as inherently associated with the all-things-considered most powerful actor.)

Platypus
Platypus
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
18 days ago

I never said “tell your uni to stop the war.” I said: “talk more about the war, less about your uni.”

Maybe we disagree about the facts, but hopefully you and Disillusioned would at least agree with the principle I’m invoking, which is this:

If you’re advocating for a cause, you should pick promixate goals and moral narratives that will rally people to your side and divide the opposition. You don’t want to pick promimate goals that divide your own coalition, and you definitely don’t want to center a moral narrative that enjoys only 12% support.

I think divestment is a coalition-dividing proximate goal. It’s also not a very compelling moral narrative when compared to others that could have been centered. For example: “The US sends billions in military aid to Israel, who are killing tens of thousands of civilians.” The more you’re turning the national conversation towards divestment, the less we’re talking about other aspects of the conflict.

That’s how I see the facts of the situation.

In fairness, I might be wrong about the facts. Maybe there will soon be a wave of divestments across the country, which will create momentum for a broader freedom movement.

But this seems to me unlikely.

I think it’s more probable that universities will simply refuse to divest, and that the message of these protests will mostly fail to resonate. I fear it will be more like the Albany Movement than the Birmingham Campaign.

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Platypus
18 days ago

So, I think a.) the divestment movement is gaining momentum. We’ve seen some success at Brown and smaller colleges already. And, b.) even if very unpopular, the divestment campaign is necessary to put economic pressure on Israel to reach a lasting peace. If Israel permanently blocks the creation of a Palestinian state, I fear we will see the events of the past year play out again and again. However, maybe, I’m wrong on both counts…

Last edited 18 days ago by Jonathan Kendrick
Platypus
Platypus
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
18 days ago

Thanks, Jonathan, for explaining where you’re coming from.

If Israel permanently blocks the creation of a Palestinian state, I fear we will see the events of the past year play out again and again.

Well said.

Louis
Louis
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
18 days ago

Jonathan Kendrick:

Putting aside a small minority of people on the far-right, the majority of Israelis do NOT have an in principle objection to the formation of a Palestinian state … what they have is a HUGE practical objection.

The practical objection is that they have completely lost faith that the Palestinian leadership has any desire for long term peace with Israel. And they believe (with justification) that any steps that they take towards an independent Palestinian state will simply be exploited as an opportunity to further the goal of annihilating Israel and that it will put Israeli civilians in harms way.

So it’s simply not plausible that Israel will cave to economic pressure. Israel believes that it’s fighting for its existence, and for the safety of its civilians. No amount of economic pressure will make a difference.

You says that maybe “the divestment campaign is necessary to put economic pressure on Israel to reach a lasting peace”. How can Israel reach a peace with a group (Hamas) that is ideologically committed to its annihilation?

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
18 days ago

It is incredibly unlike that acceding to the demands will have any material effect on the atrocities being committed in Gaza. In what sense is divestment necessary to put pressure on Israel? What is the causal mechanism?

FWIW I support the same goals, I’m just curious about strategy. Like others I’m skeptical that the demands are good strategy.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
18 days ago

*unlikely

David Wallace
19 days ago

The list of companies to be divested from includes pretty much the entire US defense industry, including the companies that manufacture the munitions the US is currently sending to Ukraine and the equipment used by US forces committed to the defense of Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and our NATO allies in Europe.

My sense from the statements made by the main organizing groups behind the protests, and from at least a substantial part (not all) of the media-quoted comments by individual protesters, is that this is a feature, not a bug: the desired goal isn’t just divestment from Israel-supporting companies but divestment from the defense industry per se (by analogy with divestment from fossil fuels).

Of course that’s an intellectually defensible goal. But if you thought US military aid to Ukraine, and US security guarantees to our allies in Eastern Europe and South-East Asia, were important, you might have reasons for skepticism here, irrespective of your take on the Israel/Gaza war or on the general efficacy and appropriateness of university divestment.

Gerard
Gerard
Reply to  David Wallace
18 days ago

Won’t someone think of the military-industrial complex!

David Wallace
Reply to  Gerard
18 days ago

It’s a relief to know I’m not the only person concerned at how much US defense manufacturing capacity has declined in the last couple of decades.

Last edited 18 days ago by David Wallace
Naïve Grad Student
Naïve Grad Student
18 days ago

“Pledge to never again call police to arrest NYU students, faculty, staff or community members for exercising their right to peaceful protest”

I am not a fan of this demand (and I already have qualms about making “divestment” the main focus of a American protests in support of Palestinian civilians).

Civil disobedience is peaceful and unlawful (by definition). I understand condemning specific instances where police abuses occur, but I don’t understand asking for blanket immunity, without recourse, for the unlawful elements of peaceful protests.

harry b
Reply to  Naïve Grad Student
17 days ago

Asking for a “no arrest” policy is depriving oneself of a vital tool. Protestors sometimes want to be arrested, and don’t want to have to do something seriously wrong or genuinely harmful to achieve that. It’s not (or shouldn’t be) a sincere demand.