Investing in Divestment

March 17, 2006

The University of California system on Thursday joined the growing list of colleges and universities that have agreed to divest their holdings in companies that do business in Sudan. The decision by the mammoth and influential public university system (and investor) is likely to give momentum to an expanding movement of student activism with an international twist, student leaders and civics experts predict.

Nationwide, many student groups have had successes at getting their campuses to divest from relationships with companies that do business with Sudan, on the theory that to protect the value of shareholder investments, company executives would convey to the Sudanese government that perpetuation of genocide in Darfur is making the country an undesirable place to do business. Scholars who study student trends see the campus push as a continuation and expansion of movements in the 1980s to force divestment from South Africa, with a focus on the underlying principle "think globally, act locally."

“An activist tends to see the connections between the U.S. and the world,” says Connie Flanagan, a professor of youth civics at Pennsylvania State University.  “And the world is more global today than it ever was before. Younger people are much more aware of international policy issues than earlier generations.”

Two years ago, Baylee DeCastro, a fifth-year student at the University of California at Los Angeles who describes herself as a feminist, and a few other students held a meeting in her apartment, with the intention of helping tackle one of the most difficult global problems around. They had learned about horrible atrocities committed against women in Darfur in the aftermath of government orders to clear civilians from areas considered disloyal to the Sudanese government. Then, they heard about mass genocide, committed by the government toward its own people, which has left 400,000 dead and at least 2 million homeless since 2003.

“We just wanted it to end,” recalls DeCastro. "But most students don't have grass roots training experience, so we have had to educate ourselves on a plethora of issues." 

In the ensuing years, that initial meeting grew into a coalition of University of California students that has devoted itself to getting the system to divest from business holdings in the region. DeCastro became an expert in media relations, fielding dozens of calls from reporters each day. She has mentored younger members of the organization. Most importantly, she says, she was able to assist with efforts to make hundreds of politicians and faculty members pay attention to the horrors in Darfur.

On Thursday, the group -- and hundreds of supportive, cheering students -- saw the regents of the university vote unanimously to support a proposal to divest from nine key businesses that have ties to the Sudanese government, which will result in millions of dollars in lost revenue for the companies. The university has only taken such actions two other times in the past, according to the group. 

"Today’s vote puts the university on the right side of history, in the position to exercise powerful and practical action to help end the murder, torture and genocide in Darfur,” said Regent Adam Rosenthal, who first presented the divestment issue at the regents’ November 2005 meeting.

"It was a crucial time for the system to step forward and use flex its financial muscle,” Adam Sterling, co-chair of the student group, said after the regents voted. “Students learned that we are not fighting for some abstract ideals. We are having incremental success.”

He added, "It feels so good to be part of something like this.  This is what higher education should be about." Still, Sterling didn't have much time to bask in the glory. It is finals week at UCLA and he has an 11 a.m. West African history exam today. He's had no time to study, he said, and probably won't receive the best grade he could have. "But this win was worth it," he added.   

Thomas J. Volgy, executive director of the University of Arizona’s International Studies Association, predicts that “success will breed more success” for students on this issue nationally, because there is a “greater recognition that the world’s politics have a direct impact on all our lives.”

“I actually don’t think this is a new trend,” adds Volgy.  “But I think we will see more student-led campaigns.”

Flanagan agrees, but she cautions, “It’s always true that a minority of students are activists. There are plenty who aren’t engaged.” She also says that young people tend to take the lead on international issues because, she says, as people age, they begin to have more immediate domestic concerns, like taking care of their families and dealing with financial issues.

“Issues of justice are good things to act on when you’re young,” says Flanagan.  “And young people tend to be less satisfied with the status quo.”

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