May 15, 2024 - Politics

Why UH students' Israel divestment demands are likely to fail

Photo of a man in front of a UT building.

University of Texas professor Craig Campbell speaks at a demonstration this month calling on the university to divest from Israel. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Pro-Palestinian protesters across universities in Texas have made a specific request of school officials that's unlikely to be entertained: divest from weapons manufacturing companies selling arms to the Israeli military.

Why it matters: Apart from whether divestment makes sense as a fiduciary or moral matter, the universities' unwillingness to bend on their portfolios is overdetermined by state politics.

Driving the news: University of Houston students plan to mobilize and speak at the board of regents meeting today to demand the university divest from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, RTX (formerly Raytheon), General Electric and Northrop Grumman — the top aerospace and defense companies in the world.

State of play: ​​The UH Student Government Association (SGA) unanimously passed a "Divest From Death" resolution a few weeks ago to get the proposal in front of the board of regents, citing how in 1987, the board was the first Southern university to divest from companies that profited from the economy of the apartheid state of South Africa.

  • While divestment is not on the May 15 agenda, Florentia Cunanan, a member of UH Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), tells Axios the student organizers plan to speak to the board during public forum.

The big picture: Students holding protests at UH, UT and campuses across the country have sought to use divestment as a tool to put pressure on Israel, whose attacks in Gaza have killed over 35,000 Palestinians, including many women and children.

Reyna Valdez, a UH senior with SJP, tells Axios that the student body wants the university to stand up for the students and combat the state politics, adding that SJP members have been frustrated lack of response on the students' divestment demands.

  • "University admin as a whole has been refusing to take accountability for UH's investments. And instead of divesting or removing investment assets from these companies, they instead have been punishing students who have been peacefully protesting," Cunanan added.

The other side: "This will NEVER happen," Abbott wrote on X about the protesters' divestment demand.

  • Abbott's office declined an Axios interview request.

Flashback: Texas has had a law since 2017 that bars state public agencies — including UH — from entering into contracts with companies that boycott Israel.

  • When Abbott signed an initial version of the law barring public contractors from boycotting Israel, a major Texas trading partner, he said "anti-Israel policies are anti-Texan policies."

What they're saying: "While we appreciate our students exercising their free speech on issues important to them, the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) demands made by some student organizations would be inconsistent with Texas law. These actions are not under consideration," UH said in a statement to Axios. "Texas state agencies, including public universities, are forbidden from engaging in such boycotts or contracting with companies that do."

Reality check: While BDS demands are inconsistent with the spirit of the 2017 and 2019 state anti-boycott laws, selective divestment from weapons manufacturing companies could technically be legal, Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, tells Axios.

  • The attorney general would likely intervene and take it to the Texas Supreme Court and the state would pass legislation that would prohibit that divestment, he says.
  • There's essentially no chance UH would do that, he says. "Even if the universities could theoretically try something, they know full well that there would be a very strong backlash by the Republican leadership in Austin, that it would be counterproductive."
  • "By and large none of the universities want the state of Texas more involved in their investment activities than it already is."

What we're watching: Expect Texas' top policymakers to tighten their embrace of Israel as campus protests continue.

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