Every university should divest from the military-industrial complex

Dr Binoy Kampmark

The rage against Israel’s military offensive in Gaza since 7 October has stirred students to protest at a number of US university campuses and, indeed, in other countries. Echoes of the anti-Vietnam War protests are being cited. All-too-often docile consumers of education are being prodded and found to be interested. University administrators and managers are, as they always tend to be, doing the bidding of their donors and funders in trying to restore order, punish the protesting students where necessary and restrict various forms of protest and free speech. Finally, those in the classrooms have something to talk about.

A key aspect of the protests centres on university divestment from US companies linked to and supplying the Israeli war machine.

The pattern is also repeating itself in other countries, including Canada and Australia. The response from university officialdom has been to formulate a more vigorous anti-Semitism policy – whatever that means – buttressed, as was the case in Columbia University, by the muscular use of police to remove protesting students for trespassing and disruption. On 18 April, in what she described as a necessary if “extraordinary step”, Columbia President Minouche Shafik summoned officers from the New York Police Department, in riot gear, to remove 108 demonstrators occupying Columbia’s South Lawn. Charges have been made; suspensions have been levelled.

Students from other institutions are also falling in, with similar results. An encampment was made at New York University, with the now predictable police response. At Yale, 45 protestors were arrested and charged with misdemeanour trespassing. Much was made of the fact that tents had been set up on Beinecke Plaza. A tent encampment was also set up at MIT’s Cambridge campus.

The US House Committee on Education and the Workforce has also been pressuring university heads to put the boot in, illustrating well the fact that freedom of speech is a mighty fine thing until it aggrieves, offends and upsets various factions who wish to reserve it for themselves. Paradoxically, one can burn one’s own US flag as a form of protest, exercise free speech rights as a Nazi, yet not occupy the president’s office of a US university if not unequivocal in condemning protest slogans that might be seen as “anti-Semitic” by those who have weaponised the term in the service of a foreign state.

It would have been a far more honest proposition to simply make the legislators show their credentials as card carrying members of the military-industrial complex.

The focus by students on the Israeli-US military corporate nexus and its role in the destruction of Gaza has been sharp and vocal. Given the instinctive support of the US political and military establishment for Israel, this is far from surprising. However, it should not be singular or peculiar to one state’s war machine, or one relationship. The military-industrial complex is protean, spectacular in spread, with those in its service promiscuous to patrons. Fidelity is subordinate to the profit motive.

The salient warning that universities were at risk of being snared by government interests and, it followed, government objectives, was well noted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his heralded 1961 farewell address, one which publicly outed the “military-industrial complex” as a sinister threat. Just as such a complex exercised “unwarranted influence” more broadly, said Eisenhower, “the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.” The nation’s academics risked “domination… by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money.”

This has yielded what can only be seen as a ghastly result: the military-industrial-academic complex, heavy with what has been described as “social autism” and protected by almost impenetrable walls of secrecy.

The nature of this complex stretches into the extremities of the education process, including the grooming and encouragement of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students. Focusing on Lockheed Martin’s recruitment process on US college campuses in his 2022 study for In These Times, Indigo Olivier found a vast, aggressive effort involving “TED-style talks, flight simulations, technology demos and on-the-spot interviews.” Much is on offer: scholarships, well-paid internships and a generous student repayment loan programme. A dozen or so universities, at the very least, “participate in Lockheed Martin Day, part of a sweeping national effort to establish defence industry recruitment pipelines in college STEM.”

Before the Israel-Gaza War, some movements were already showing signs of alertness to the need to disentangle US learning institutions from the warring establishment they so readily fund. Dissenters, for instance, is a national movement of student organisers focused on “reclaiming our resources from the war industry, reinvesting in life-giving services, and repairing collaborative relationships with the earth and people around the world.”

Such aspirations seem Pollyanna-ish in scope and vague in operation, but they can hardly be faulted for their intent.

The Dissenters took to the activist road, being part of a week-long effort in October 2021 comprising students at 16 campuses promoting three central objects: that universities divest all holdings and sever ties with “the top five US war profiteers: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics”; banish the police from campuses; and remove all recruiters from all campuses.

Demanding divestment from specific industries is a task complicated by the opacity of the university sector’s funding and investment arrangements. Money, far from talking, operates soundlessly, making its way into nominated accounts through the designated channels of research funding.

Every university should, as part of its humane intellectual mission, divest from the military-industrial complex in totality. It will help to see the books and investment returns, the unveiling, as it were, of the endowments of some of the richest universities on the planet. Follow the money; the picture is bound to be ugly.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.