Students Are Pushing US Colleges to Sever Ties With Military-Industrial Complex 

The violence wreaked by U.S. wars since 9/11 has been immense — more than 929,000 total deaths, including an estimated 380,000 civilian deaths. Since 2001’s Afghanistan War, the U.S. has spent an astounding $14 trillion on Pentagon expenditures. up to one-half of whichThey were sent directly to defense contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman as well as General Dynamics and Raytheon.

While these facts are outrageous, they aren’t surprising in a country built on colonial violence — a country whose power and expansion are derived from war-making, with such militarism being grounded in every institution arising from the state, including education.

Students and young people are witness to the ways that the U.S. education system is deeply involved in war and militarism. They are also demanding change in increasing numbers. As student organizers with Dissenters — a national movement that is building local teams of young people across the country and mobilizing to reclaim our resources from the war industry, reinvest in life-giving institutions, and repair collaborative relationships with the earth and people around the world — we were part of a weeklong effort at the end of October, in which students at 16 campuses across the country rose up to unite around three central demands: 1) Universities must divest all holdings and cut all ties from the top five U.S. war profiteers: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrump Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics; 2) All cops off of all campuses; 3) All recruiters off all campuses.

Such a statement lies at the heart of Dissenter’s organizing and the Dissenter’s overall “Divest from Death” campaign, which helps students mobilize against any war-making institutions their schools may be invested in. In fact, U.S. colleges are complicit with the infiltration of war profiteers and overall defence contractors. American University gives lucrative board positions for war profiteers. Wesley Bush, the former CEO of Northrop Grumman; and, just this February: a $75 million donation from major shareholders of General Dynamics — the Crown Family — was approved by the University of Chicago’s newly renamed Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice. Meanwhile, hundreds of other U.S. universities continue to renew contracts with U.S. defense companies to fund and fuel internship programs, arts and cultural buildings on campus, and to maintain a steady STEM-to-war pipeline at the nation’s top engineering schools.

With the clear stake that U.S. institutions have in perpetuating endless war, it’s no wonder that young people at colleges across the country are rising up to demand our schools sever ties with the military-industrial complex.

The increasing momentum of antiwar organizing among students was particularly evident on Oct. 25-31, during the Dissenters Divest from Death Week of Action, as young people from Chicago, to Washington, D.C, to California, to Hawaii explicitly centered humanity over profit by disrupting “business as usual” at their institutions through direct action.

Students fight investment in Militarism

On October 11, the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) sent out an email to its student body proudly claiming that its city was one of the first to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States, and asking students to research and acknowledge the land we are on to honor the day. CalTech and the University of California have both received this email. upwards of $300 millionTo build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) projectLocated on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. – a project that has been actively opposed by Indigenous Hawaiian protesters. Mauna Kea is sacred and a large telescope would be a desecration. Indigenous Hawaiians, including elders protested the construction of TMT on the land. They were threatened with violence and threatened with arrest by the settler-state police. Ignoring and trampling over the demands of Indigenous Hawaiians to stop this development is a shame.

Hawaii Dissenters workday at Ka’ala Farm and Cultural Learning Center.

UC Berkeley students are now more active than ever in forming alliances with Hawaii organizers to defend Mauna Kea from TMT. They are not the only university that is contributing to the construction TMT. In fact, Punahele Kutzen, a student organizer of Hawaii Dissenters in Manoa, emphasizes that while the University of California is a full partner in the construction of TMT, “so many universities are direct profiteers of this desecration,” including the California Institute of Technology and Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) associate schools like Johns Hopkins, Yale, and more.

Students involved in the Hawaii Dissenters have continued to resist such funding and imperialism. During the Divest from Death Week of Action, Hawaii Dissenters’ main focus was on highlighting the climate imperialism resulting from the U.S. military’s ongoing occupation of Hawaii.

Stressing the imminent threat to the water supply and ecosystem by the Navy’s underwater missile testing and fuel tanks, Hawaii Dissenters directly confronted military officials and settler state politicians about their role in Red Hill — a military fuel storage facility in Hawaii.

Conducting a community teach-in titled “Red Hill 101” as part of a coalition of O’ahu-based Water Protectors, Hawaii Dissenters also made public comments at last week’s Red Hill Task Force Meeting, in which they challenged the military and state’s claims of national security as justification for poisoning O’ahu waters and overall Hawaiian land. Beyond their week of action, Kutzen clarifies that Hawaii Dissenters are “continuing to plant pilina [relationship or union] and build connections with folks from the ground up, connecting with ʻĀina [the land] as we fight for genuine security.”

In Chicago, students at University of Chicago have been fighting a different battle against their institution’s direct investment within militarism and destruction. University of Chicago Dissenters spent their week of action working with #CareNotCops and other student organizations to protest Paul Alivisatos’s inauguration as president of UChicago.

“President Alivisatos may be a new face, but he is beholden to the same donors, billionaire trustees,” said a representative of #CareNotCops, who wished to remain anonymous.

Alivisatos proposed 10 “vectors and culture of engagement” for his new direction of the University — but none of them promises true change.

“The vectors do not denounce UChicago’s active role in domestic militarism, through CPD and the University of Chicago Police Department, where ‘engagement’ is the harassment and surveillance of our Black neighbors and peers. Nor do they address UChicago’s role in international militarism — in fact, these ‘vectors’ only mention an expansion of UChicago’s investment portfolio, which currently includes four of the five largest weapons manufacturers in the country (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and Raytheon), and other war profiteers,” said the representative.

History shows us that “elite” U.S. schools like UChicago do, and will — without apology — displace and demolish whole swaths of Black neighborhoods, fund warfare and deforestation through investing multibillion-dollar endowments, bust unions, steal wages, force out disabled students and sexual assault survivors, send cops to shoot those in crisis, harass Black neighbors with private police forces, and more as it suits its financial interests.

“That’s why we want the university to divest precious money and resources from the UChicago Police Department, and invest in funding #EthnicStudiesNow, #CulturalCentersNow and #ReparationsNow for the South-Siders whose lives have been affected by university expansion,” said Nico Emmanuel-Henderson, a Dissenters organizer at UChicago.

Students Fight the Revolving Doors Between the University & the Military

Universities have other ways of infusing militarism into their school structures, besides direct investments in funding and research for war-making institutions. Most prominently, these include recruitment to military and policing programs like the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), which often have a major presence on our campuses. Programs like the ROTC often offer students money in grants and scholarships — or even payment of future scholarly endeavors — if they were to sign up. Such promises ensure a steady stream of college students — who too often struggle to pay for outrageous tuition on top of the other crucial resources like books, food, rent, and more — to participate in and perpetuate violent militarism and oppression.

Moreover, recruitment looks like universities making space for weapons-manufacturing companies to scout out potential employees on campuses, both formally and informally. At schools like Howard University (HU), Lockheed Martin is especially prominent, and has been targeting Howard’s Black student population to “diversify” its own team and staff. In other words, the company is searching for Black computer science, engineering and business majors — science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students — to contribute in doing the work of militarism and oppression.

This horrendous STEM-tomilitarism pipeline leads us to the important question WhoWhat are their stakes in militarism and who is behind these recruitment strategies? Too often, university higher-ups who approve or advocate for programs that favor militarism have a deep relationship to war-making and militarism.

American University Dissenters posing with banner at their school’s School of International Service.

American University (AU) most recently approved Wesley Bush — former CEO of the weapons-manufacturing company Northrop Grumman — to the Board of Trustees in January 2021, leading to a school-wide campaign against him. For their Divest from Death Week, AU Dissenters organized a “trick or treat” canvassing event to garner more signatures on their petition to remove Bush from their Board, and orchestrated a banner drop within the School of International Service — the most renowned department at American University. AU Dissenters devoted this week and beyond to on-campus organizing in solidarity with Howard University student organizers. Blackburn Takeover. In fact, for almost a month now, HU students have been protesting their hazardous dorm living conditions– including mold, roaches and vermin– by occupying their Blackburn Student Center. Students’ list of demandsA meeting with the Howard administration is required. Students are also entitled to full academic, disciplinary, and legal immunity. They must also be granted legitimate housing plans and their right to vote for members of the Board of Trustees. Students protesters are forced to rely on outside sources for food and encampment materials as temperatures drop. This is despite Howard’s continued antagonization. For the week of action, AU Dissenters was able to raise enough money to purchase a generator for them, and are making weekly supply runs for students at Blackburn, “for however long it takes.”

Students from AU are making progress in their organizing and have even attracted the attention of other administrative personnel. In fact, in response to students sending letters for Bush’s removal, American’s University’s current president (and former Secretary of Health and Human Services under the Obama administration) Sylvia Burwell sent an email to students about Bush’s presence on the board, saying, “Members of the Board of Trustees represent a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, all of which are critically important for advancing the university’s mission. Wes Bush’s extensive experience in the corporate and philanthropic sectors will augment the board’s efforts and contribute to our work and our community.”

Burwell is right about one thing: Board of Trustees members play a crucial role in advancing the university’s missions. In fact, the Board of Trustees is a critical structure in university administration, as it controls the development of the school’s overall objective, school policies, and how money can be used to implement these programs and policies. In other words, the Board of Trustees handles where students’ money goes and how that money is used. When the board has vested interest in militarism or war, we need to recognize that this can and does override the needs for students at the university.

Mya Franklin, a member of Northwestern University’s chapter of Dissenters, emphasized this in a statement made during the Divest from Death Week of Action: “Divesting from militarism is deeply personal because there are people on the Board of Trustees at Northwestern that have not only the power, but the ability, to provide services like stipends for low-income students, expansion of CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services, the school’s primary mental health service]There are several options to help survivors. [sexual assault], but they don’t. Instead, they are actively fueling death and destruction.”

A banner dropped over an arch on Northwestern University’s campus.
A banner dropped over an arch on Northwestern University’s campus.

Franklin is referring specifically to Phebe Novovic, the former CEO of General Dynamics and Dennis Muilenburg, whose past developments as the former Boeing CEO included the creation of weapons by the Israeli military in order to massacre Palestinians. Northwestern Dissenters were quick in pointing this out during their week-long action. They did a banner drop and flew posters at their Research and Technology Building reminding students that the institution and its board members are actively fueling destruction and death.

The work to purge university administrations of war criminals isn’t easy. After all, these are powerful individuals whose connections and resources can be weaponized to terrorize all opposition — even if they are young students. Universities will do anything to protect these profiteers because they are well-integrated and monetarily advantageous to the internal administrative structure. This includes stalking and watching students on campus.

As a member of the American University Dissenters, I (Ngakiya Camara) personally recall instances of being surveilled on campus and have been agitating against AU’s practice of doing nothing to protect Black students on campus, while simultaneously doing everything to protect Wes Bush.

Meanwhile, Mya Franklin of Northwestern Dissenters recalls being harassed by Northwestern University Police Department (NUPD) officers while doing the banner drop and flyering, stating, “Someone ripped down one of our posters as it was drying. [A]NUPD pig pulled up on us and harassed. That morning, we all acutely experienced militarism as we were fighting for anti-militarism.”

These situations will continue so long as universities are willing prioritize the role of war crimes on their campuses over the livelihood of students. As long as powerful war profitseers hold important administrative positions such the Board of Trustees (the Board of Trustees), resources meant for students can be used to strengthen the lucrative ties these profiteers have to institutions they invested in. We will not remain silent, even in the face powerful war profiteers.

Our universities, which claim to be a hub of progress and inclusion, are actually partners with the same death institutions that promote imperialism and settler colonialism. These instances often take place behind closed doors. They invest in colonial constructions such as TMT in Hawaii and cops in Chicago. They also approve war profiteers to their Board of Trustees. But we — students and folks impacted by U.S. militarization — These areRecognize the power of our institutions to stop violence.

It’s now time for universities to recognize us, and our demands for them to divest from death. We see other young people from Washington, D.C., California, Hawaii, mobilizing on their campuses in support of cutting ties to the military-industrial complex. We won’t stop until we turn the tide against war and militarism.