Tag Archives: Parkland school shooting

Will Colleges Divest from The Gun Industry?

Bowing to pressure from MoveOn.org, Monsignor Franklyn M. Casale, the President of St. Thomas University in Miami, issued an ultimatum on March 13 to Anita Britt, his Chief Financial and Administrative Officer: choose between your work for this university or membership on the Board of American Outdoor Brands, the former Smith & Wesson Holding Company cited as the maker of the AR-15 that Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz used –you can’t do both. Britt chose the gunmaker.

It was an abrupt reversal for Monsignor Casale who as recently as March 9th issued a letter of support for Britt—stating that the university has a policy aligning with one adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “calling for reasonable approaches to gun violence.” Casale claimed that “American Outdoor Brands provides her the opportunity to participate in helping the company achieve its objectives of making our communities safer. Her role with the company does not conflict with her responsibilities here at St. Thomas. We look forward to her continued participation in our leadership.”

Across-the-Board Divestment

Four days later, in the wake of a well-publicized MoveOn petition that garnered nearly 300 signatures, Casale changed his mind and issued the ultimatum to Britt. Casale tried to explain his reversal to the Miami Herald: “After my statement of this past Friday, it has become clear that many of the sensible and reasonable solutions to this gun epidemic, which have been discussed previously, were becoming less and less clear.”

The MoveOn petition calling for Britt to step down was created by Praveen Kathpal, an Alexandria, Virginia resident who is a Vice President for an energy storage company. Kathpal also serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Energy Storage Association—an energy advocacy group. Claiming to have become an anti-gun advocate following the 2017 shooting at the Congressional a baseball practice at the YMCA ball field his son had attended, Kathpal sent an email to the Miami Herald warning “if individual influential people are urged to confront their place in America’s gun violence epidemic through societal pressure, they might make different choices.” Kathpal has also created a second MoveOn petition calling for the resignation of Smith and Wesson Board member Greg Gluchowski, a CEO for a Cincinnati company.

The St. Thomas reversal is just the latest attempt by MoveOn to control campus conversations on a long list of progressive causes including divesting from fossil fuels, increasing access to reproductive rights, expanding transgender rights, and most recently, gun control. Badgering board members is just the start. There are now calls for universities to divest from the gun industry.

Divestment campaigns at universities began in the 1970s when activists demanded divestment in South Africa because of its apartheid. Bloomberg reported that by 1988, 155 educational institutions had severed investment ties, pressured by protests at Harvard, Columbia, Michigan State and others. Aligning an institution’s money with its stated values is reasonable, especially when socially responsible investing might have positive impacts. But there are many gray areas.

More recently, divestment has focused on fossil fuels. A few years ago, the University of Dayton—a Catholic university in the middle of the rebounding coal and shale industry—announced its intention to become the first Catholic university in the country to divest coal and fossil fuels from its $670 million investment pool.

Although pressure for universities to divest from the gun industry has been unsuccessful in the past, it is likely to gain traction in the wake of the Parkland shooting. According to Bloomberg, the University of Notre Dame, with $11.8 billion under management, “adheres to guidelines from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which asks members to avoid companies that do harm.”

Notre Dame declined to say whether it holds firearms investments, citing a policy of not commenting on its investments. Bloomberg reports that some colleges and universities are prohibited from social activism. The University of Texas, with its $40 billion, is governed by a policy banning investments that would “advance social or political purposes.”

While some colleges, like Grinnell, have continued to honor agreements with donors who hold the highest positions at the National Rifle Association, it is likely that others will attempt to divest. Inside Higher Ed reports that “interest in divestment has spiked in recent weeks.” Some of the largest university money managers, like TIAA-Cref, have been targets of online petitions.

It is likely that the pressure St. Thomas University faced will be replicated elsewhere as anti-gun billionaires like George Soros will continue to bully colleges and universities with ties to the gun industry. Soros has a long history of this kind of bullying. In 1998, Soros funded an unsuccessful lawsuit against gun manufacturers. At the World Economic Forum in 2016, when Soros was asked by International Business Times whether he believed investors who support gun control should divest from firearms companies, he responded: “I’m very much against guns, and if it can be organized on a large enough scale, I wouldn’t be opposed to it.”

Still, his antipathy to guns has not prevented Soros from benefiting financially from the gun industry. Securities and Exchange Commission filings reviewed by the International Business Times demonstrated that Soros Fund Management was a top institutional shareholder in Vista Outdoors—one of the country’s top ammunition manufacturer, and Olin Corporation, which makes ammunition under the Winchester name.

The Soros Fund purchased a stake in Vista in early 2015 and held $11.4 million worth of shares in the company at the end of September 2015. Soros is not alone in this. While the American Federation of Teachers has backed gun control proposals, the pension savings of its members have been invested in the firearms industry, and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System owned $7 million worth of shares in Vista and Olin.

Whether the pressure to divest from the gun industry will succeed on additional college campuses remains to be seen. Northwestern University, Texas A & M University, the University of California system and the University of Michigan have already indicated that they do not have investments in firearm manufacturers. Others are likely to follow.

The Real Fallout from High School Walkouts

On February 21, many high school students across the country staged a brief walkout from their classes to protest school shootings. Grieving students at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Forest are also helping to organize even larger national student walkouts—hashtags #Enough and #NeverAgain— on March 14 and 24 to protest lenient gun laws. These actions are a mistake. Disruptive activism violates students’ freedom to learn, an essential ingredient of academic freedom.

The students at the Parkland high school who helped organize their own walkout and who have organized the coming national walkouts have been lionized in the media. David Hogg, Sara Imam, Cameron Kasky, and several other Parkland students have been featured in interviews on television and cited in news stories for their roles in calling on legislatures to adopt more stringent gun control measures and calling on fellow students across the country to walk out of class in protest.

Hogg, Imam, and the others may be perfectly sincere, but the story is a little more complicated than it first seemed. The students have received a great deal of help from a teachers’ union (it bussed the students to a protest in Tallahassee) and various progressive organizations, including the Women’s March and MoveOn.org. Conservative media responded with accounts such as David Hines’ “Why Did It Take Two Weeks to Discover Parkland Students’ Astroturfing?” and Charles Cooke’s “David Hogg Is Fair Game for Critics.”

In the meantime, college admissions offices across the country have been rushing out announcements that they will not penalize any students who walk out of their classes because of the protests. One such announcement came from Ken Anselment, dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, who wrote:

For students who have been suspended or who face the threat of suspension, fear not: we at Lawrence University will not change your admission or scholarship decision in light of a suspension related to this kind of peaceful civil action.

Lawrence University is among hundreds of institutions that announced similar policies. Yale, for instance, declared:

Here at @Yale, we are proud to support all students for participating in peaceful walkouts for gun control or other causes, and we will not rescind admissions decisions for students who do so regardless of any school’s disciplinary policy.

Brown, Dartmouth, and MIT are in the same camp. By February 27, at least 117 colleges had said much the same thing, and by March 2, the figure had grown to about 250.

Typically, being suspended from school or significantly disciplined compromises a student’s acceptance at a college, but when it comes to protesting America’s gun laws, colleges and universities are in large numbers willing to make an exception.

The mass murder at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is abhorrent, and the students who witnessed it are surely traumatized. Whether stricter gun laws of other sorts of legislative actions are a wise response is a matter I will leave aside for now. All these—the shootings, the trauma, and the calls for new legislation—rightly overshadow the question of whether walking out of class is an appropriate response.

Colleges and universities, to say nothing of numerous editorial boards, are saying, in effect, ‘Yes, it is. Walking out of class is excellent testimony on behalf of a good cause.’ But they are wrong.

Walking out elevates a feeling of moral urgency above respect for education and the rights of fellow students. Walking out during regular school hours is meant to dramatize how deeply students are touched by the latest school massacre and how strongly they support legislative remedies. The walkouts, of course, won’t change the surrounding debate over Second Amendment rights. The students may hope to persuade elected officials to “do something” to stop the scourge of mass killings in schools. But what they are really doing is mistaking moral vanity for genuine “participation in democracy.”

Walking out of class to drive a political point emphatically subordinates education to the quest for power. To many students, the protests are righteous and perhaps cathartic. But underlying their experience of “making a difference” is the message that the pursuit of political ends justifies the sacrifice of educational priorities.

Walkouts are not costless. They elevate groupthink. Children are extraordinarily vulnerable to peer opinion, and if the prevailing view favors protest, millions will conform not because they care much about the cause but because not conforming will expose them to ridicule. The students who hold contrary views—and surely there are some—will be bullied and, in any case, denied their right to a day of regular public education.

School students who are passionate about supporting new gun legislation have every right to speak up. But they could do so on their own time, not during school hours.

Where did the idea of a school walkout come from? The tactic is far from new. In 1968, for example, student walkouts in Los Angeles were organized by social studies teacher Salvador Castro to protest bias against Chicano students. Justified as “civil disobedience” by progressive activists, such walkouts were relatively rare until about 2014, when they seemed to have emerged as a go-to response for all sorts of activists. Sometimes they are merely local events. In March 2014, 200 students in Massachusetts walked out of their classes to call for a “hard line against fossil fuel infrastructure.” In September 2014, students in Jefferson County, Colorado, a Denver suburb, repeatedly walked out of their classes to protest curricular changes approved by the local school board. In December 2014, after a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, some high school students walked out in New York City.

But sometimes the walkouts are national. On November 14, 2016, after the election of President Trump, more than 2,000 students walked out of Washington, DC schools to protest. Similar walkouts were staged across the country. On February 7, 2017, Muslim high school students in New York staged a walkout in opposition to Trump’s travel ban—a cause which echoed in many other cities.

The effectiveness of such walkouts in drawing attention to a cause is not in doubt. They get lots of coverage. Disrupting one’s own education is sometimes depicted by activists as noble self-sacrifice, but typically the burden of the disruptions is also borne by those who have no part in the cause and may even strongly disagree with it. Does “civil disobedience” of this sort justify denying educational opportunity to fellow students, particularly when the protesters have non-disruptive alternatives?