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Dear university governing board members,
American institutions of higher learning are the envy of the world and have always stood for academic freedom and been invaluable advocates for human rights.
More than a year ago, I wrote to you in my former capacity as under secretary of state about the real and urgent threat to that ideal posed by the authoritarian influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This threat has broad implications for ensuring academic freedom, honoring human dignity, protecting university endowments and safeguarding intellectual property. I wrote that as a former board chairman of a major university, I recognized that, when addressing a strategic issue of this magnitude, the responsibility sits squarely on the shoulders of every board member and trustee.
Also, as a former CEO of public companies and nonprofit organizations, I wrote a similar letter to the CEOs and boards of all American companies as well as one to the leaders of civil society groups urging them to divest from Chinese companies that are “involved or complicit with CCP’s human rights abuses, the surveillance state and military-civil fusion.” Many Chinese tech companies are involved with the surveillance state and military-civil fusion. Furthermore, a 2020 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute revealed “new evidence that some factories across China are using forced Uyghur labor under a state-sponsored labor transfer scheme that is tainting the global supply chain.” The report identified 82 foreign and Chinese companies—including many well-known brands—found to be “potentially directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through abusive labor transfer programs as recently as 2019.”
In my final letter as a public servant, I wrote the leaders of civil society organizations, saying,
My experience in the business, education and government sectors tells me that there is tremendous power in uniting those sectors as a force for good if we are all armed with the truth. The world is watching, and the integrity of our democracy and educational institutions is in our hands. Whether in the public sector, private sector, or as an everyday citizen, I look forward to continuing to work together to protect the freedoms we all hold dear.
In that same spirit of partnership, I now write to you as a private citizen in view of recent developments that affect your moral obligations and fiduciary duties as a trusted board member of your university.
Determination of Punishable Genocide
My previous letter highlighted the CCP’s human rights abuses designed to eradicate the ethnicity and religious beliefs of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the mass internment camps of the Xinjiang region of China.
Since that time, the U.S. government has officially declared the Chinese government’s abuses in Xinjiang genocide, determining in January 2021 that China’s governing authorities “are engaged in the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group.” Around the world, the CCP’s atrocities against the Uyghurs have been recognized as genocide by lawmakers in the Czech Republic, France, the United Kingdom and a growing number of other countries.
Grassroots Divestment Movement Answers the Call
The bipartisan Athenai Institute, a student-founded nonprofit, has responded to this call for divestment from malign Chinese companies by organizing a grassroots movement that is rapidly spreading across college campuses nationwide. In its recent letter to the presidents and governing boards of U.S. flagship public universities, the institute brought together an ideologically diverse coalition of political leaders, human rights groups and leading student groups, including the College Republican National Committee and the College Democrats of America, in calling for divestment.
Students from Cornell, Georgetown and George Washington Universities and the Universities of Virginia and California, Los Angeles, are already mobilizing toward divestment from firms complicit in atrocities against the Uyghurs. Last year, the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., began an audit of its endowment holdings for any companies complicit in human rights abuses against Uyghurs after the student government unanimously passed a resolution calling on the university to divest its financial holdings connected to the genocide in Xinjiang. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Karna Lozoya, Catholic University’s vice president for university communications, said the university is working with a shareholder advisory firm, Institutional Shareholder Services, “to identify any company involved in or benefiting from human rights violations, including Uyghur exploitation … At this point, the search has not identified a company in which the university invests that is known to be involved in or benefit from Uyghur exploitation.”)
Reminiscent of Antiapartheid Movement
This student-led divestment movement is reminiscent of the antiapartheid movement that spread to 155 colleges after students at Hampshire College persuaded its trustees to divest all holdings of companies doing business in South Africa.
The college-based antiapartheid movement eventually led to 90 cities, 22 counties and 26 states taking a stand against the South African government. As a result, many public pension funds were required to sell South African–related assets. As the divestment movement gained worldwide notoriety, Congress took various actions against the South African apartheid regime.
Congress Joining the Movement
Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Just as they did during the antiapartheid divestment movement, members of Congress are beginning to target university endowments invested in the Uyghur genocide.
Recently, U.S. Representative Greg Murphy, a Republican from North Carolina, said, “Our colleges and universities which have been given a tax-free status do not need to be investing in this nation that wants to see our downfall.” Legislation he plans to propose would target private universities with endowments topping $1 billion, including Duke, Harvard and Yale Universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, disincentivizing them from investing in “adversarial entities” listed on U.S. government sanction lists. He also sent a letter to the 15 private universities with the largest endowments asking them to purge their investment portfolios of “entities that are supporting the imprisonment of Uyghur Muslims or aiding the Russian Federation’s horrific invasion of Ukraine.”
Universities Are Trusted Institutions
American universities are among the most trusted institutions in the world. We trust universities to uphold our values as free people, including the academic freedom that comes with it. In contrast, the CCP targets institutions like yours in order to plunder intellectual property, spread propaganda and help finance its human rights abuses.
This is your chance to ensure our universities stand for higher principles by deploying the power of the purse. American universities have some $800 billion in total endowments, so their commitment to divestment would not be merely symbolic but would have a real and genuine impact.
The grassroots Uyghur genocide divestment movement is growing, and, as trusted leaders, we have the opportunity and the obligation to stand with our students. The leadership of the College Republicans and the College Democrats summarize this calling best: “In the fight against authoritarianism, universities can continue to benefit from the largesse of an emboldened authoritarian state, or they can stand on the right side of history. They cannot do both.”