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A 'Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions' Movement Conservatives Can Support

The Hill

Conservatives have generally opposed the progressive left’s years-long effort to boycott, divest from, and sanction (BDS) countries and companies the left doesn’t like. Israel is usually at the top of that BDS list. But given the deplorable nonresponse of so many colleges and universities to their students’ support for Hamas, maybe it’s time for a conservative BDS movement: cutting federal funds to those colleges and universities unwilling to suppress or at least control the anti-Jewish hate.

Actually, getting the federal government to divest from — that is, stop lavishing money on — colleges and universities is in line with conservatives’ decades-old desire to get the federal government out of education, or at least dramatically reduce its role. Yet those efforts have failed. Federal spending on higher education has grown, especially in the last few years. Hundreds of billions of dollars go to colleges and universities each year. The money is disbursed through federal student aid (65 percent), grants (27 percent), and contracts (8 percent) (i.e., where the federal government is purchasing goods or services from a university). 

Ironically, some of the universities with the largest endowments — tax-exempt funds built up from donations and investments, which are supposed to advance the universities’ mission — are also recipients of the largest federal handouts. Universities are sitting on huge endowment account balances while the federal government borrows trillions of dollars, giving part of that borrowed money to the universities.

For example, U.S. News ranks Harvard University’s endowment as the largest at $50.9 billion. Massachusetts Institute of Technology is fifth on the list, with $24.7 billion. The University of Pennsylvania, at $20.7 billion, is sixth. 

How much did these universities receive in federal funds? According to Open the Books, from 2018 to 2022 Harvard received $3.2 billion in federal grants and contracts, and Penn received $3.7 billion. (MIT didn’t make Open the Books’ top 10 list, but it received millions of dollars.)

These would also be the same three universities whose presidents recently embarrassed themselves and their institutions by muffing their responses to congressional questions about calls for a Jewish genocide on their campuses.

Donors and board members of the University of Pennsylvania were quick to express their outrage and threatened to withdraw sizable donations — $100 million in one case — and threatened to leave the board. That’s essentially a private-sector form of “boycott, divest and sanction.” And it worked. Penn’s president, Liz Magill, was forced out and donors and the board have promised to implement changes. 

The presidents of Harvard and MIT remain — for now. 

But Gil Mandelzis, writing in the Wall Street Journal, has made a reasonable case that these and many other colleges and universities have violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits educational institutions that receive federal money from creating a discriminatory or hostile environment for any student on the basis of race, color, and national origin.” Anyone who is interested can see lots of videos demonstrating that several universities and colleges have become very hostile environments for Jewish students and others who support Israel.

Mandelzis is right, and apparently, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona agrees. He has vowed to pull federal funding from schools that fail to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia. 

“Ultimately, if we have to withhold dollars from a campus refusing to comply, we would,” Cardona is quoted as saying.

The fact is, it makes little sense for the federal government to be doling out billions of taxpayer dollars to colleges and universities that are sitting on billions of dollars in their endowments. Many of these institutions are fabulously wealthy. If Harvard’s endowment were on a list of richest Americans, it would be in 16th place.

If the federal government were to reduce or eliminate Harvard’s federal handout — what the left calls “divesting” — the university could easily make up the difference from its endowment. The same is true for many other colleges and universities. 

This isn’t a call for suppressing speech. Students should be encouraged to debate. But in many cases, the offenses have gone way past speech to harassment and violence. Moreover, universities across the country were quick and eager to punish what they saw as  “microaggressions” against students. Can they now plausibly turn their backs on these sorts of “macroaggressions?” 

Colleges and universities need to step up and ensure the safety of their students — all students. If that means getting the federal government to “divest” from those that don’t, it will send an important message and save some taxpayer money.