In December 2023, Daniel Diermeier, chancellor of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, wrote: “Universities are, by design, where we come to debate and probe the questions that matter to us most. And our explorations are richest and most fruitful when they are informed by a wide range of viewpoints.” 

Pure hogwash. 

The hypocrisy of what Diermeier calls “institutional neutrality” has been exposed before the world by the violent crackdown on the student upsurge that began at Columbia University on April 17. University administrations have employed violence against their own students to suppress their freedom of speech and assembly. They had occupiers brutally attacked by police, arrested, evicted, suspended from school and fired from their jobs.

New York University, April 22, 2024. WW Photo: Brenda Ryan

Vanderbilt University is one of over 90 campuses (as of April 29) where students have constructed “solidarity encampments” to demand the university divest from Israel bonds and companies that prop up the apartheid state. Vanderbilt is among the 30 colleges and universities with the largest endowments and is currently the site of a tent occupation.

The chancellor’s commentary appeared in none other than Forbes magazine, which for decades described itself as a “capitalist tool” — hardly a paragon of neutrality. 

But it’s worth examining the capitalist connections to the unequivocally non-neutral institutions of “higher learning” that are, in some cases, brutally suppressing student activism.

The 30 largest university endowments add up to $483 billion — almost half a trillion dollars! This is a tremendous amount of wealth extracted from the labor of workers around the world. The endowment funds are then reinvested back into the capitalist economy, in corporations, private equity and hedge funds — and sometimes with direct purchase of Israel bonds. Many of the funds the endowments invest in also hold Israel bonds.

Several universities have invested in companies that manufacture weapons for the Israeli military. The University of Pennsylvania financed the creation of Ghost Robotics, which produces the armed robotic “dogs” Israel is using in northern Gaza.

Often members of a university’s board of trustees are drawn from banks, corporations and Wall Street hedge funds. The president of Columbia University, Minouche Shafik, was formerly an official at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Private universities are themselves corporations. The Harvard Corporation brags on its web site of being “the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere.” Higher education corporations profit by charging exorbitant tuition fees while fighting university unions to keep wages low for clerical, food service, custodial, graduate students and other workers. 

Even publicly funded university systems have multibillion-dollar endowments and strong corporate ties. 

These institutions can, in turn, count on the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state to brutally attack student protests when they deem it necessary — and practical — given that many campus protests have been strong enough to push back state repression.

The working class must act in solidarity with this heroic student revolt, one that is not only taking on Zionist apartheid, but is objectively confronting the whole capitalist class that dominates U.S. society.

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