A History of Divestment at Barnard


Students call for Columbia University to divest from South African Apartheid, October, 1978. Barnard Archives and Special Collections.

1980s: Barnard joins colleges and universities across the country in divesting from Apartheid South Africa.


In the early 1980s, students on college campuses across the country began demanding that their universities stop investing in companies that conducted business in South Africa,[1]which at the time maintained an oppressive system of racial segregation known as “apartheid.”[2]This raised the notion that universities can use their endowment investment decisions as a tool for drawing attention to a particular issue and taking a symbolic stance.

Protest at Columbia University, 1985. Amistad Digital Resource.

In Morningside Heights, a group known as the Coalition for a Free South Africa (CFSA) educated Columbia and Barnard undergraduates on the injustices and indignities endured by Black South Africans under the apartheid system.[3]They raised consciousness at events such as dormitory forums and teach-ins.[4]They contended that Columbia and Barnard were complicit in apartheid because of their investments in companies that profited from the low wages paid to black South Africans.[5]Divestment from these companies, they argued, would place economic and social pressure on the hegemonic white regime of South Africa.

In September, 1985 then-Barnard President Eileen Futter announced that Barnard would divest from companies with operations in the Republic of South Africa.[6]As a result of this decision, Barnard chose to sell $945,000 worth of stock in IBM and General Motors, two companies that maintained operations in South Africa at that time.[7]The resolution adopted by the Board of Trustees described the system of apartheid supported by the government of the Republic of South Africa as “abhorrent and contrary to the values and fundamental principles of human decency to which the Barnard community is committed.”[8]In this way, Barnard used investment decisions as a way of symbolically expressing a community value.

2010s: Barnard divests from fossil fuel companies that deny climate change.

In response to a nationwide fossil campaign divestment campaign,[9]in 2014, “Barnard Columbia Divest” was established.[10]However, in recognition of the two institutions’ separate endowments, the group later separated into Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (CDCJ) and Barnard Divest.[11]In the spring of 2015, the latter group initiated a fossil fuel divestment campaign on Barnard’s campus by collecting signatures, hosting teach-ins, and raising awareness via social media.[12]


In January 2016, Divest Barnard initiated a campus-wide referendum on whether the College should divest from fossil fuels.[13]Of the approximately 24% of the student body who participated in the referendum, 96% of respondents voted in favor of divestment.[14]This referendum demonstrated the Barnard student body’s unequivocal support for fossil fuel divestment.

In response to Divest Barnard’s efforts, on December 9th, 2015, Barnard’s Board of Trustees established the Presidential Taskforce to Examine Divestment.[15]This task force was comprised of administrators, faculty, Trustees, student government representatives, as well as representatives of the original Divest Barnard campaign.[16]The task force’s stated purpose was to “to work collaboratively with a cross-section of the Barnard community to assess the financial implications of divestment; to understand Barnard’s ethical responsibilities as a good global citizen in dealing with the impact of climate change; and to make a determination about the compatibility of these priorities.”[17]
On December 7th, 2016, following a nine-month review process, the Presidential Task Force to Examine Divestment released its findings.[18]They recommended that Barnard
College divest from “all fossil fuel companies that deny climate science or otherwise seek to thwart efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change.”[19]In March, 2017, the Board of Trustees voted to adopt these recommendations and divest from companies that actively deny climate change, as well as companies that mine coal and tar sands.[20]

Spring 2018: Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) initiates college-wide referendum

In 2016, two student groups, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Barnard-Columbia Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) joined together to launch Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), a campus-level campaign embedded in the larger ‘Boycott, Divest, Sanction’ movement.[21]According to its website, BDS is a Palestinian-led movement that endeavors to “end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”[22]On March 25th, 2018, members of both SJP and JVP presented in front of the Barnard Student Government Association (SGA) asking that Barnard divest from eight companies: Caterpillar, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Elbit Systems, Mekorot, Bank Hapoalim, Lockheed Martin, and finally, the Mekorot water company.[23]Student representatives from SJP and JVP argued that Barnard should divest from these companies because they provide the Israeli government and military with a wide range of services that enable the “dispossession of [Israel’s] indigenous Palestinian presence.”[24]Despite pushback from SGA representatives and audience members, Barnard’s SGA nevertheless chose to initiate a referendum on whether or not it should recommend CUAD’s divestment campaign to the Barnard administration.[25]One week later, Aryeh, a student group that supports a two-state solution, presented in front of SGA requesting that the SGA refrain from using the term “apartheid” in the referendum.[26]In the end, 1153 students participated in the referendum, with 64.3% of respondents voting in favor of the measure.[27]However, following the results of the referendum, Barnard President Sian Beilock sent an email to students informing them that the College would not move forward with the results of the referendum because the measure failed to fulfill the two standards: 1) obvious consensus among the student body and 2) upholding the College’s mission to promote freedom of expression.[28]

 From the early 1980s to the present, Barnard students have always been passionate about the social and ethical concerns arising from the management of Barnard’s endowment. By providing student groups with a clear administrative avenue with which to raise concerns to the Board of Trustees, an Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) would promote transparency and accountability in the management of Barnard’s endowment. This advisory committee would not only give students a voice in the management of their endowment, but also facilitate the free exchange of ideas through discourse and deliberation.

The ethical quandaries arising from Barnard’s investments are numerous, and while an advisory committee would in no way be a panacea to the ethical dilemmas currently facing the Barnard community, it would ensure that all members of the community have a seat at the table.

[1]“COLLEGES THAT HAVE RID THEMSELVES OF HOLDINGS IN PROTEST.” NY Times, April 5, 1986. Accessed September 27, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/1986/04/05/us/colleges-that-have-rid-themselves-of-holdings-in-protest.html.

[2]“Apartheid.” History.com. October 10, 2010. Accessed September 27, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/africa/aapartheid.

[3]Freeman, Joshua, and Victoria L. Johnson. Waves of Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.



[6]Murphy, Jacqueline Shea, and Alison Craiglow. “BC Sells S. Africa Stock.” Columbia Daily Spectator (New York), September 3, 1985, 110th ed., sec. 3. Accessed September 27, 2018. http://spectatorarchive.library.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/columbia?a=d&d=cs19850903-01.2.5.



[9]Dreier, Peter. “Obama Embraces the Divestment Movement: From Apartheid to Climate Change.” The Huffington Post. August 29, 2013. Accessed September 27, 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/obama-and-the-divestment-_b_3520933.html.

[10]“History of Our Campaign.” Divest Barnard. Accessed September 27, 2018. http://www.divestbarnard.org/history-of-our-campaign/.



[13]Bandrowski, Ainsley. “96 Percent of 24 Percent of Barnard Student Body Vote in Favor of Fossil Fuel Divestment, According to SGA Referendum.” Columbia Daily Spectator, February 11, 2016. Accessed September 27, 2018. https://www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2016/01/31/sga-fossil/.


[15]Presidential Task Force to Examine Divestment. Final Report to the Barnard College Board of Trustees Committee on Investments. NY: Barnard College, 2016. Accessed September 27, 2018. https://barnard.edu/sites/default/files/bc-divestmentreport2-2016dec.pdf

[16]“Climate Action at Barnard.” Climate Action at Barnard. Accessed September 27, 2018. https://barnard.edu/vision-values/divestment.

[17]Presidential Task Force to Examine Divestment. Final Report to the Barnard College Board of Trustees Committee on Investments. NY: Barnard College, 2016. Accessed September 27, 2018. https://barnard.edu/sites/default/files/bc-divestmentreport2-2016dec.pdf

[18]Barnard College. “Barnard Presidential Task Force Recommends Divestment from Companies That Deny Climate Science.” News release, December 7, 2016. Barnard.edu. Accessed September 27, 2018. https://barnard.edu/news/barnard-presidential-task-force-recommends-divestment-companies-deny-climate-science


[20]Spitz, Jessica.”Barnard Board of Trustees Accepts Recommendation to Divest from Climate Change Deniers, Coal and Tar Sands.” Columbia Daily Spectator. March 4, 2017. Accessed September 27, 2018. https://www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2017/03/04/barnard-board-of-trustees-accepts-recommendation-to-divest-from-climate-deniers-coal-and-tar-sands/.

[21]“Statement to the Columbia Community.” Columbia University Apartheid Divest. 2016. Accessed October 02, 2018. http://apartheiddivest.org/statement.

[22]“BDS Movement.” BDS Movement. September 21, 2018. Accessed October 02, 2018. https://bdsmovement.net/.

[23]Rojas-Posada, Valentina. “Push for Divestment from Israel Met with Resistance at SGA Meeting.” Columbia Daily Spectator, March 25, 2018. Accessed October 2, 2018. https://www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2018/03/20/push-for-divestment-from-israel-met-with-resistance-at-sga-meeting/.

[24]Columbia University Apartheid Divest. “Bold, Beautiful, BDS: The Moral Case for Saying “Yes to Divest”.” Columbia Daily Spectator, April 13, 2018. Accessed October 2, 2018.https://www.columbiaspectator.com/opinion/2018/04/13/bold-beautiful-bds-the-moral-case-for-saying-yes-to-divest/.

[25]Rojas-Posada, Valentina. “Push for Divestment from Israel Met with Resistance at SGA Meeting.” Columbia Daily Spectator, March 25, 2018. Accessed October 2, 2018. https://www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2018/03/20/push-for-divestment-from-israel-met-with-resistance-at-sga-meeting/.

[26]Rojas-Posada, Valentina. “Following CUAD Proposal, Aryeh Members Supporting Israel Address SGA.” Columbia Daily Spectator, March 27, 2018. Accessed October 2, 2018. https://www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2018/03/27/following-cuad-proposal-students-supporting-israel-address-sga/.

[27]Juhasz, Aubri. “Barnard SGA Referendum on Divestment from Companies with Ties to Israel Passes with 64 Percent Support.” Columbia Daily Spectator, April 18, 2018. Accessed October 2, 2018.https://www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2018/04/18/barnard-sga-referendum-on-divestment-from-israeli-companies-passes-with-64-support/.

[28]Juhasz, Aubri, and Ainsley Bandrowski. “Beilock Says Barnard Will Not Take Action on Israel Divestment Referendum, Causing Uproar from Students.” Columbia Daily Spectator, April 23, 2018. Accessed October 2, 2018. https://www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2018/04/23/beilock-says-barnard-will-not-take-action-on-israel-divestment-referendum-causing-uproar-from-students/.

A WordPress.com Website.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: