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University of Minnesota regents on Wednesday were considering a neutrality policy for the U endowment as they navigate conflicting pleas over whether they should divest from some companies in response to the war between Israel and Hamas.

"We have learned that our university community is divided on the topic of divestment and that, even if it were not, the feasibility of doing divestments in this current financial environment is complicated and, I would say, nearly impossible," Board Chair Janie Mayeron said during a Board of Regents meeting Wednesday.

Her remarks drew a strong response from fellow Regent Robyn Gulley, who said she found the proposal "really upsetting."

"What we're doing right now by taking up this resolution is saying not just today but in the past and in the future, forever and ever and ever, we're never going to listen to our students again, when they call on us to take a moral position," Gulley said.

Regents did not reach consensus on how they might resolve the divestment questions, but the conversation Wednesday presented the first public hints as to how they're viewing one of many facets of an issue that has challenged colleges across the country. The war and a wave of student protests have reinvigorated debates about free speech, how to define antisemitism and Islamophobia, and who should be hired for various jobs.

The board also weighed in Wednesday on another issue about the conflict. Regents, except for Gulley, voted to endorse an earlier statement by board leaders regarding the search for a director for the U's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

The U had offered the job — and a history professor position — to Israeli historian Raz Segal, who in an article described Israel's assault on Gaza as "a textbook case of genocide." Then-interim President Jeff Ettinger paused the director search after some Jewish groups raised concerns, but he said he would defer to faculty on whether to offer Segal the professor post. The Faculty Senate voted last month to express no confidence in him, and leaders of the Board of Regents quickly issued a statement saying they supported his decision.

Divide over divestment

Pro-Palestinian activists have called on universities across the country to divest from companies that have ties to Israel or U.S.-based defense contractors. Some Jewish student leaders have urged colleges to resist those calls and instead invest in both Israelis and Palestinians.

Leaders at Columbia University, which saw some of the largest and most contentious protests this spring, said they wouldn't divest but offered to speed up a review by a committee focused on socially responsive investing. Leaders at some other colleges, like the U, have agreed to disclose their investments but so far stopped short of saying what they'll do with them.

The U has chosen to divest in the past. It divested from companies doing business in South Africa in the 1980s over concerns about apartheid but lifted the restrictions after free elections were held in 1994. It banned investment in Total Oil Company over concerns about human rights violations in Myanmar in 1998, and it is in the process of phasing out fossil fuel investments.

Gulley said that when she was a U student, she was part of a group that persuaded administrators to re-examine any investments with companies in Sudan.

"It was one of the things I was most proud of as a student and one of the ways I felt like my voice was able to be heard as a student," she said.

Mayeron said she believes divestment decisions are largely symbolic, noting that after stocks are sold they're often quickly snatched up by someone else. She said the U's investments have also changed over time, and it's now more difficult to sell off individual stocks.

The U has two endowments. Newer donations are placed in a $3.6 billion endowment overseen by the University of Minnesota Foundation, a nonprofit that coordinates fundraising efforts for the U and says its business information is private. Older donations are held in a $2.27 billion endowment overseen by the U, about $5 million of which is in stocks and bonds tied to companies based in Israel or U.S.-based defense contractors.

Returns on investments in that older endowment provide about $90 million for the U each year, money that goes to a variety of causes, including scholarships or funding certain positions.

'It's complicated'

In a meeting last month, the U's chief investment officer, Andrew Parks, told regents his office spends every day trying to weigh the financial risks of various investments. But when it's time to make decisions based on social issues — such as whether to blacklist companies based in a specific country — "that's where I would look to the board and to the president for policy guidance," Parks said.

Many of the U's endowment investments are held indirectly in funds that are run by managers, Parks said, and can't always be separated. Those decisions could affect the return on investments and could also change the types of fees that the U is required to pay.

"I think the takeaway from this is, it's complicated," Parks said. "And I think there aren't solutions, there are just trade-offs."

Some regents said Wednesday that they wanted more details on how divesting would affect the U's endowment. Others said they wanted to know whether adopting a neutrality policy would affect the effort to divest from fossil fuels.

Whichever approach they choose, new U President Rebecca Cunningham urged regents to consider providing clarity quickly, saying the world appears to be getting more complicated, not less.

"Universities around the country are all preparing for a complicated fall on campus," she said.