The spring of 2014 semester at San Diego State University was a turning point in student organizing on the campus. The proposal of a divestment bill in January that demanded the university cease its investments in corporations that are complicit in Israeli human rights violations along with a series of other events throughout the semester indicates the galvanization of a new campus left.
The divestment results at San Diego State University’s University Council (16 against, 3 in favor, 3 abstentions) should not come as a surprise. We understood that we were introducing a bill that focused on social justice to a student government that focuses on business, applauding itself as a “corporation.” It is exactly for this reason that we introduced the resolution.
The primary objective of the divestment initiative was to challenge the corporate model of student governance, to educate students on the human rights violations faced by the Palestinian people, and to stimulate the formation of inter-community solidarity amongst students at San Diego State University. In this respect, divestment was a spectacular victory.
SDSU Student Government’s Corporate Curse
The proposal of the “Resolution for Divestment in Support of the Human Rights of the Palestinian People” was the culmination of months of work by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and an alliance of conscientious students that came together to create a new coalition of student activists: the Student Union for Representation and Justice (SURJ). SURJ and SJP then appealed to other student organizations for support and accumulated 11 endorsements from across the board, ranging from the Queer Student Union to the Association of Chicana Activists.
Divestment was the first campaign to be taken on by SURJ and the idea of an anti-establishment coalition which refuses to be recognized by the administration caught on: being extra-institutional was seen as necessary in the face of administrative control over “recognized student organizations” (RSOs). RSOs are subjected to certain rules (designed to limit their ability to take extra-institutional actions) by the university and therefore risked being disbanded (in a similar fashion to the recently reinstated Students for Justice in Palestine at Northeastern University). Administrative control also includes a dependent Associated Students Incorporated, our student government, which directly yields its power to the administration through its adherence to the defective concept of “shared governance.”
Shared governance allows the administration to sit on student government committees and lets students sit on some administrative boards. Although this appears to give a voice to students in the administration, in reality students have very little power over the administration. On the other hand, the administration holds a massive amount of influence and often imposes its own agenda within student government.
According to “shared governance” student and administration interests are one and the same. This could not be further from the truth. The administration continues to take home higher paychecks while cutting courses, introducing increasingly higher student fees and dismissing professors. During the divestment hearing, the university Vice President Quinnan who sits on the Associated Students’ University Council (a feature of shared governance), took home at least $500 for doing nothing more but sitting in total silence. The top 25 administrators at San Diego State take home $5 million per year.
“Shared governance” is a crucial lens by which we can view the divestment results at San Diego State University. It attests to a major flaw in Associated Student’s system of governance in which the administration has a hand in everything the student government does. Consequently, the students look to the administration for guidance and are not able to develop their own independent perspectives.
This leads Associated Students at SDSU to make decisions which can often be against student interests. We can see how this works in another injustice on our campus: the so-called “Student Success Fee.” The Student “Success” Fee is a euphemism for a tuition increase promoted and imposed by the administration. The fee was implemented through a joint effort between the university administration and Associated Students which, despite a blatant majority of students opposed to it, was given a rubber stamp of approval by Student Government (note that the same group that campaigned for divestment mobilized against the Student Success Fee).
Divestment Goes to University Council
The only board on Associated Students that is not influenced by the Associated Students’ corporate heads is the Student Diversity Commission. The Student Diversity Commission was created last year, as a sandbox for progressive organizations to play in after they were removed from their more influential roles in the University Council (an action that was protested by progressive student groups like M.E.Ch.A). This is where we took the divestment resolution where the Commission voted resoundingly in favor of divestment with 11 in favor and 3 against. This victory permitted the divestment bill to move up the University Council.
During the 4 months in which the bill slowly moved through the Associated Students bureaucracy we held 7 open forums on divestment, 6 educational events on Palestine, tabled 7 times and gave 17 presentations on divestment to various organizations and college councils throughout the semester. Yet, the primary argument against divestment at the University Council was that Associated Students did not have enough time or information to make a decision.
The other accusation was that these forums and presentations were biased. Yet, our invitation to the opposition to participate in one of the open forums was declined and our attempt to include their grievances in the Divestment resolution was turned away with a rigid and unrealistic response: “the word Israel has to be removed from the entire bill.” Despite this, the opposition had the nerve to make several public comments in which they stated that we were not willing to have “dialogue” with them.
What truly killed the divestment bill in Associated Students however, was a lack of critical thinking by many in the student government who believed the citations that we provided to be flawed. They claimed that .org websites are not reliable (ruling out many reputable organizations) and that .gov websites as well as the corporations’ own websites are.
The questions that many University Council representatives failed to ask themselves are: Would an Israeli or American government website publish information that does not serve their interests and which would incriminate them? Would a corporation publish information that reveals their involvement in human rights violations and war crimes?
Ironically, a packet handed out to University Council members by the Zionist opposition included citations from Facebook, Youtube, the Israeli Defense Force, the Israeli ministry of Foreign Affairs. Yet, these sources were treated as equivalents to our citations from Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and Jewish Voice for Peace.
One representative on the council claimed to have spent 8 hours conducting research which shows that these corporations are not complicit (citing websites like Forbes, “the capitalist tool” and the Jewish Policy Center), voiding years of research and on-the-ground presence by the third-party organizations we cited. When citations were in fact missing for some y, the supporters of divestment on the council presented valid citations which were subsequently refused by the rest of the University Council.
With representatives beginning to complain that the meeting was starting to run too long (5.5 hours– a short meeting compared to the ones at University of California student governments), bound to negative votes in their College Councils (many of whom had not even read the resolution), convinced they did not have enough time to learn, not having addressed any of the public comments, and persuaded that the citations were flawed– Associated Students’ University Council at San Diego State University voted to continue the university’s investments in war crimes and human rights violations.
Throughout this process, Associated Students’ leadership (nominally chairpersons of various boards) applied a variety of procedural double standards to this bill that were not applied to any other decision made by Associated Students. To begin with, while the (less controversial) Academic Freedom resolution we introduced in the fall semester went straight to the University Council, the divestment resolution had to go through the unelected University Affairs Board (UAB), largely composed of appointees from the Associated Students executives who were vocally against divestment. Divestment did not pass in UAB where it lost 7-10. After being misinformed by Associated Students staff (who pretended there was no other manner by which we can get the divestment bill to the University Council) we found out that we could take it through the Student Diversity Commission. It was there that the bill was revived by a landslide 11-3.
Then there was the “balance double-standard.” Whereas the “Student Success Fee” circumvented a referendum and was passed by a select few administrators and Associated Students executives, with the university president claiming “alternative consultation” was the best route since the fees were too complicated for students to understand– divestment was put to votes in College Councils that had never even read the resolution. Many limited education on the issue to a 2 minute presentation by those in favor and against the resolution. It was these votes in the College Councils that determined the result in the University Council, a departure from all other resolutions that have been proposed in the past which were never introduced to the College Councils.
With the “Student Success fee,” Associated Students gave presentations to various organizations, councils and students at large, where they heavily advocated in favor of a tuition increase without discussing its downsides. In contrast, students who were advocating for divestment were not allowed to give any presentations without having the opposition presenting as well. In fact, at a Student Life and Leadership staff meeting, an administrator, Assistant Director Yvonne Hernandez, went so far as to tell the rest of the staff to advise student organizations not to let us give divestment presentations at their meetings.
This double standard culminated in the violation of California State Law where a couple college councils turned away students who went to give public comments in favor of divestment. Since under the Brown Act, student government meetings are public meetings, allotting time for public comments is a requirement. Yet, even public comments were disallowed since the opposition was not organized enough to get their own members to give public comments simultaneously.
Why we lost- and how we won!
In these ways, student government leaders and the university administration played the most important role in stopping divestment from passing. In reality, “Aztecs for Israel,” the Zionist opposition had little to do with the results. Their influence was limited to tapping into personal relationships which former Zionist student representatives had with some of this year’s representatives and executives.
Following the vote, #SDSUdivest supporters gathered outside in large numbers. To the contrary of Zionist scare stories, a closer look at the crowd reveals the success of divestment in uniting the campus around a social justice issue. If there is a division, it is one between those who support social justice and those who do not.
With the galvanization of a movement of students who are ready to defend social justice, a framework for student organization has emerged and is in a strong position to take on a variety of injustices which can be found on our campus: racism and sexual prejudice, the lack of gender neutral restrooms, hate speech and the degradation of public education through policies of austerity.
This was made evident by the determined crowd that came out of the divestment hearing, pledging to divest not only from corporations complicit in Palestine but also in the Prison Industrial Complex and the militarization of the US-Mexico border, to walk out in protest of the “Student Success Fee” on May 1st, and to maintain themselves as a coalition of campus groups that will not permit injustice whether it is in the form of colonialism or austerity to exist on our campus.