UMN Regents Hear From Students On Divestment, Campus Climate

At a highly charged University of Minnesota Board of Regents meeting Friday morning, student leaders from Minnesota Hillel and the Divest UMN Coalition took turns speaking to the regents: one group about the deteriorating climate on campus for pro-Israel Jewish students, and the other about divesting funds from Israel.

It was the third time in the past two weeks that pro-Israel Jewish students spoke publicly about the climate that has been created on campus towards them in the wake of Divest UMN pro-Palestinian encampments and graffiti on campus.

“We didn’t want to fight, we didn’t want to defend our identities for an audience, we didn’t want to have to explain the Jewish connection to Israel and how singling out Israel for condemnation feels antisemitic, and we didn’t want to give other groups on campus further reason to hate or fear Jews,” said Charley Maloney, the incoming student president of Minnesota Hillel. “But we are here to represent our community anyway. We are here because we have no choice but to defend ourselves and our right to a safe learning environment free of fear and harassment.”

Alex Stewart, the outgoing Hillel student president, detailed Divest UMN efforts to get the U to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel in 2016 and 2018, and the harassment that Jewish and non-Jewish students faced for participating in educational trips to Israel. She also pointed out the SJP national conference held at the University in 2019 under the title of “Dismantling Zionism.”

“In the face of the conference’s hateful imagery and messaging, Jewish students placed our own referendum on the all-campus election ballot asking if the University should adopt a definition of antisemitism to help identify and address anti-Jewish hatred on campus,” Stewart said. “That referendum easily passed because most UMN students reject hate. However, UMN Divest launched a forceful ‘Vote No’ campaign to prevent Jewish autonomy in defining and identifying the hate directed against our people.”

This past semester, UMN Divest ran another referendum on the all-campus ballot targeting Israel and calling for an academic boycott. The non-binding referendum passed overwhelmingly, although only about 10 percent of the campus voted. The referendum question was written in a broad way to appeal to students who have connections to any number of countries with human rights violations and war – though Israel is the only country explicitly named.

“We hope you see the same pattern we do: UMN Divest has done little more than inflame our campus, pit minority groups and friends against one another, and create a toxic environment that no longer feels safe for many students,” Stewart said. “All of these efforts have also marginalized Jewish students during a time when antisemitism has already been a growing concern, and they have left little space for good-faith dialogue across differences.”

Maloney said that he hopes the school will make a decision that puts divestment, a “toxic, divisive, and often antisemitic topic, to rest.”

“If not, our campus will continue to be overrun by these issues, divisions will continue to grow, and groups that applaud the torture, rape, death, and kidnapping of 1,400 Israelis and call for globalizing those Hamas efforts will be emboldened to marginalize Jewish and Israeli students further,” he said. “It is not too late to teach the University of Minnesota community that you believe peace is possible, that Zionism isn’t a dirty word, that investing in Israelis and Palestinians can be more potent than divesting, that knowledge, empathy, and understanding can still be more powerful than fear and rhetoric, and that silence in the face of hate is not an option.”

Ethan Roberts, the deputy executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said all credit goes to Minnesota Hillel director Benjie Kaplan, the staff at Hillel, and the students.

“This is the third time in two weeks that Alex Stewart has had to publicly defend her identity as a Jewish woman on campus,” he said. “As we’ve said many times, our students just want to be students. They do our community proud.”

Before UMN Divest and Minnesota Hillel leaders spoke, Board of Regents Chair Janie Mayeron said the regents would not decide anything at Friday’s meeting.

“This meeting is to serve as a platform for the regents to listen and to learn. But no action will take place by us today,” she said. “Our role as a university is to educate, support, and create forums for constructive dialogue and mutual understanding. It is a very tall order in times where the divisions run so deep. We have much work ahead of us.” 

‘Appropriate balance’?

During an hour of public comment on Interim President Jeff Ettinger’s recommended operating budget for the 2025 fiscal year, most of the speakers who were granted time to speak discussed their desire to divest from companies doing business with or being located in Israel. However, at least one Jewish staff member of the University of Minnesota was not granted time when she requested it earlier this week. 

Laura Mogelson, who works in the school of education, was told by Brian Steeves, the executive director and corporate secretary of the Board of Regents, that because the UMN Divestment Coalition and Jewish student leaders both had slotted speaking spots later in the meeting, that “Chair Mayeron has concluded that the presentations by the UMN Divest Coalition and the Jewish student leaders will provide appropriate balance in the meeting, and therefore, your request to appear before the Board has been declined.”

Jake Ricker, the senior PR director for the University of Minnesota, said in an email that “those who spoke during the 8 a.m. hour [Friday] and signed up for one of those in-person speaking slots starting at 7:30 this morning, ostensibly to comment on the proposed budget.”

“This forum is hosted each year to take public comment about the proposed operating budget, but the Board cannot dictate what speakers say during public forums the Board provides,” Ricker said.

Ricker said that the Board of Regents received additional requests from other speakers but Mayeron granted time only to the two requests.

Mogelson, in the denial to her request to speak, was not told that she’d have the opportunity to sign up; Ricker said that those who spoke showed up early enough were not told that either, but that the opportunity was in an email sent out last week. He said social media posts from Students for a Democratic Society, part of the UMN Divest coalition, said to “pack the room” starting at 7:30

Roberts said there was no reason that the board allowed the public comment period to happen how it did.

“This is highly consistent with the way the administration has of giving those who break the rules what they want. It’s creating perverse incentive structures,” he said. “If the Board of Regents are allowing budget time to be an open forum and people can talk about whatever they want, now we know. The community will act accordingly.

Roberts was angry that Sima Shakhsari, a professor in the women’s and gender studies department at the university who has denied that Israeli women were raped by Hamas in the Oct. 7 attack, had as much time to speak during the comment period as Stewart and Maloney did.

“The university never ceases to find opportunities to screw this up. Are they not aware the community has ample evidence that following rules and being respectful gets you nowhere? They’re obviously afraid of pro-Hamas extortionists,” Roberts said. “They don’t speak for most people. They are just very, very loud. And they’re bullies. If don’t stand up to them, you just enbolden them. It’s long past time to stand up to them and say ‘you don’t get everything you want because you won’t get off the lawn.’”

A University of Minnesota Students for Justice in Palestine Instagram story that reads: "Israel does not have a right to defend itself, no nation state does. Israel does not have a right to exist, no nation state does. Palestine is the ancestral homeland of Palestinians, no one else. Resistance by any means necessary is justified under international law. Zionism is fascism. One state, not two."

A University of Minnesota Students for Justice in Palestine Instagram story that reads: “Israel does not have a right to defend itself, no nation state does. Israel does not have a right to exist, no nation state does. Palestine is the ancestral homeland of Palestinians, no one else. Resistance by any means necessary is justified under international law. Zionism is fascism. One state, not two.”

Mogelson was offered an opportunity to email the Board of Regents for the public record, which she took advantage of. She relayed seeing the chalk writings around the encampment that read “Glory to the Resistance Victory to Al-Aqsa Flood,” explaining that “Al-Aqsa Flood” is how Hamas refers to their attacks on October 7. She added her own chalk writing that read “FREE THE HOSTAGES,” before two students scrubbed out the word “hostages” with their feet and water. Mogelson took video of this and shared it with TC Jewfolk.

Mogelson was also critical of Ettinger’s agreement with the organizers of the encampment, particularly incorporating Palestinian “Thawabit” or “Palestinian red-lines,” which include a “right” to violence against Israeli civilians, and shared a post from Students for Justice in Palestine that read: “Israel does not have a right to defend itself, no nation state does. Israel does not have a right to exist, no nation state does. Palestine is the ancestral homeland of Palestinians, no one else. Resistance by any means necessary is justified under international law. Zionism is fascism. One state, not two.”

“Are these people you think the University should negotiate with regarding our investments, our global collaborations, our staffing, our policies?” Mogelson wrote. “People who write these things on University property, people who support the idea of kidnapping and murder, and who post vile (and stupid, to be honest) words on the internet as a student group? President Ettinger clearly needs support in navigating this situation and it is not going well. Do we allow these terror-supporting people to break the rules or influence the direction of the U of MN?”

Disclosure shows little investment in Israel

Earlier this week, as part of the deal made with anti-Israel protesters to take their tents down from Northrop Mall, the University of Minnesota disclosed that about one-tenth of 1 percent of the school’s $2.27 billion endowment is invested in Israeli companies.

According to reporting by MPR News, which recieved the U’s figures from UMN Divest, the school’s endowment has “$2.4 million (or 0.11 percent of the total fund) in exposure to stocks and bonds of publicly traded Israel-domiciled companies, with an additional $2.6 million (or 0.12 percent of the total fund) in other publicly traded companies of interest, including select U.S.-based defense contractors.”

In a social media post earlier this week, UMN Divest said the “Administration has until May 17th to fully disclose all public investments as agreed upon. We demand disclosure of all public and private investments of the University of Minnesota.” 

In article earlier this week, Todd Ely, a University of Colorado Denver public administration scholar, explained that it’s easier said than done. Ely wrote: “Many protesters have said they object to their tuition dollars being in an endowment with financial ties to Israel. But that’s not how endowments work. Universities and colleges typically spend all the money they receive from tuition on core operations. They supplement those funds with revenue from other sources – including their endowments.”