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Newgarden ’25: An opportunity to break the gridlock on divestment

After a monthslong campaign featuring a hunger strike, two sit-ins and numerous op-eds, the issue of divestment from companies supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory will finally be formally considered by a committee of faculty, staff, students, alumni and administrators for the first time in more than four years. The Brown University Community Council will meet on Zoom today to vote on two recommendations: one that the University drop the charges against the 41 students arrested in December at a pro-Divestment sit-in and another that students be allowed to present the case for divestment to the Corporation at its May meeting. This vote will signal the community’s position on the issue of divestment, but it can do so much more. If we all play our cards right, the BUCC can provide a resolution to the question of divestment that allows administration to save face, students to get an important win for the movement and Brown to formally separate its finances from the destruction of Gaza and the oppression of the West Bank. 

The background on divestment will by now likely be familiar to most Brown students. In 2020 President Paxson refused to bring the report by the recommending “ to the Corporation, “did not meet established standards for identifying specific entities for divestment or the articulation for how financial divestment from the entities would address social harm.” The University then dissolved ACCRIP, replacing it with a similar body — the Advisory Committee on University Resources Management, or ACURM.

At the outset, it’s worth noting that ACURM is not materially different from ACCRIP. The two committees were both charged with considering Brown’s ethical standards for investments, making the demand that any subsequent consideration of the same question go through ACURM unreasonable. President Paxson insists that students who organized a campaign, made the case for divestment and successfully moved a shared governance committee to support their cause must go through the exact same process all over again with no guarantee of success. 

At actions throughout the year, students have responded by insisting that President Paxson has full control over divestment and must bring it before the Corporation immediately. They’re right — there is that says the President cannot raise investment policy decisions to the Corporation without bringing them through ACURM. President Paxson cannot have it both ways. If the decision not to divest is the President’s discretion when she to the Corporation, then it must also be hers when she refuses calls from protesters. 

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It’s clear that the situation university presidents across the country find themselves in is precarious. showed, giving answers in line with principles of free speech can get a president ousted. When that fails, conservative reporters will do something like to get university leaders to resign, even if their community supports them. 

The other path isn’t reliable either. Minouche Shafik, President of Columbia, in a recent Congressional hearing, throwing academics under the bus and then arresting more than 100 students. The result? The Columbia chapter of the American Association of University Professors , showing that the infringement of free expression can only go so far. At the same time, conservative representative Elise Stefanik — Shafik clearly didn’t pander to conservatives enough for her taste. 

We are, then, at an impasse. Political conditions show that practically any drastic action by university administrators — whether defending free speech or restricting it — can lead to a loss of control. President Paxson has put herself in just such a precarious position by refusing both to divest in 2020 and reaffirming that position today. Meanwhile, students are unwilling to wait in limbo while the committee considers the same proposal as before without guarantee of a favorable result. 

The BUCC can break this gridlock. If members vote to recommend that President Paxson drop charges against arrested students and let them present the case for divestment to the Corporation, and she follows these recommendations, the whole community can win. In this grand bargain, President Paxson and other administrators would save face by having this decision shouldered by a liberal, deliberative body representing the whole community. They could say that a representative majority of the Brown community has voted in favor of divestment, and that they are carrying out that mandate. Students championing divestment would have a resolution to the ACURM impasse that doesn’t involve further administrative uncertainty. Lastly, the University could end its complicity in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. 

This scenario is not as tidy in reality as I present it. Paxson would be going out on a limb in front of both the Corporation and the public eye in allowing students to make the case for divestment. Paxson could be called for her own hearing before Congress or fall victim to internal Corporation politics. I do not want these outcomes — they would be bad for the University’s reputation, and we could end up with a president even more resistant to student activism. 

To avoid this fate, we need to make a commitment as a university. If the BUCC votes in favor of letting students make the case for divestment, and Paxson accepts this recommendation, the student body needs to defend her in turn. We would be advancing not only a moral cause, but a deliberative, democratic one. By asserting our power as community members, we would return to an earlier day of university governance, and by standing up for a president who recognizes our right as community members to make recommendations on University policy, we would reassert our role in the structure of this University.

Today’s BUCC meeting presents an opportunity to right past wrongs, break gridlock and bring the community together. For the sake of the University, I pray we don’t squander it

Daniel Newgarden ’25 can be reached at daniel_newgarden@brown.edu. Please send responses to this op-ed to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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