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Weapons, Fossil Fuels, Illegal Settlements

UMass’ Investment Portfolio: As UMass backs out of a commitment to consider divestment, a Shoestring investigation reveals its endowment has millions indirectly invested in defense contractors and other entities targeted by student activists.

Multiple police agencies arrested over 130 protestors at UMass on May 7 at a demonstration demanding divestment from weapons contractors in solidarity with the people of Gaza. ,Shelby Lee

The University of Massachusetts Foundation — the private non-profit corporation that manages the public university’s endowment — has tens of millions of dollars in indirect investments in dozens of companies on a list of firms with ties to war, occupations, and border policing around the globe, federal filings show. 

The endowment also has indirect holdings in fossil fuel giants, spyware companies, and Israeli banks that Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have cited as directly financing illegal settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

The Shoestring tracked these investments through the federal Securities and Exchange Commission in the wake of a tumultuous spring on campus, which culminated in the mass arrest of more than 130 protestors at UMass Amherst demanding disclosure of investments and divestment from companies profiting from war or the occupation of Palestinian land. 

Administrators had promised to bring the activists’ proposal for divestment to the university’s Board of Trustees, but at the board’s June 7 meeting, the proposal was absent from the agenda, prompting the resignation of student Trustee Chris Brady.

The UMass Amherst chapter of the group Students for Justice in Palestine has echoed the demands of other SJP chapters globally in a student movement that has drawn comparisons to the anti-war activism of the 1960s and the divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa of the 1970s and ’80s. 

Disclosure of endowment portfolios and divestment from war profiteers has been a common demand at pro-Palestine protests on college campuses across the United States this year, in part because finding out just where a university’s endowment has invested can be difficult. In UMass’ case, the UMass Foundation is a private corporation, which means it isn’t subject to Massachusetts public records law, making its holdings largely invisible to the public. However, institutional investors who manage more than $100 million in assets must file disclosures with the Securities and Exchange Commission, offering a window into the investing practices of institutions like the UMass Foundation, which has $1.31 billion in total assets, according to a 2023 report.

The campaign for divestment from war profiteers has not been the only divestment campaign in recent years at UMass. For over a decade, students and faculty at the university have been pushing for divestment from fossil fuels, resulting in the Board of Trustees voting to divest from direct holdings in companies linked to climate change in 2016. The university touted that decision as a step forward in addressing the threat of the climate emergency.

Yet, indirect holdings in fossil fuels remain, according to filings the university has made with the SEC. And faculty members who have been pushing for full divestment say it’s unclear whether UMass had any direct holdings in fossil fuels to begin with. Siloed away in a private foundation, the university continues to invest heavily in every industry that student movements have targeted for divestment in recent years, prompting members of the university community at all levels to question UMass’ commitment to ethics of transparency and shared governance.

The UMass Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.

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Following the money

A filing made with the SEC on May 9 reveals a portion of the UMass endowment’s holdings.

The foundation’s “form 13F,” as it’s known, details over $240 million in investments across four exchange-traded funds, known as ETFs. An ETF is a collection of assets that investment firms can sell like a conventional stock. The UMass Foundation has purchased shares in three ETFs from iShares, which the investment company BlackRock manages, and one ETF from the firm Vanguard.

Using a tool created by “Investigate” — a project of the anti-war group American Friends Service Committee meant to assist those probing the holdings of certain ETFs, mutual funds, and other pooled investments — The Shoestring was able to break down the holdings of the four funds listed in the SEC filing. The screening tool is updated monthly, according to an AFSC representative.

According to the screening tool, the four ETFs in which the university purchased shares collectively have almost $64 billion invested into 71 companies linked to “mass incarceration, military occupations, and the border and surveillance industries” across the world. Some of those companies include: Palantir, a CIA-backed company that sells AI surveillance systems to U.S. police departments and the Israeli military; Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s largest weapons manufacturers; and CoreCivic, which is among the world’s largest private prison companies.

The Shoestring independently found that as of June 7, one of the ETFs has over $232 million invested into five Israeli banks that Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have flagged as operating in, or directly financing, illegal settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank. The BlackRock ETF also has holdings in companies like Mivne Real Estate that are accused of selling properties in illegal settlements. The UMass Foundation has almost $27 million invested in this ETF as of May 9, records show.

UMass SJP has cited companies on the Boycott Divest Sanction movement’s focus list in their divestment proposal submitted to the UMass Board of Trustees on May 7. BDS, which is a Palestinian-led movement, has said these companies are complicit in the Israeli government’s human rights violations, targeting them for boycotts. All four ETFs listed in the university’s SEC filing have holdings in companies on the BDS focus list. They include the infrastructure conglomerate Siemens AG, French insurance giant AXA S.A., tech companies Hewlett Packard Enterprise and HP, sportswear brand Puma, and their respective subsidiaries or parent companies.

Using investment indexes from the webpages for each ETF, The Shoestring found that the four funds have billions of dollars invested into these companies. One of these web pages was last updated on April 30, with the other three last updated on June 6. 

A fund screening tool from As You Sow, a non-profit aimed at promoting sustainable investing, shows that all four ETFs in the SEC filing also have hundreds of billions invested into fossil fuels. The screening tool rates the environmental sustainability of the funds based on their ties to fossil fuels on a letter scale. Two of the funds received a D score and the other two received an F score.

A similar tool, also from As You Sow, rates funds based on their ties to war profiteering. The four ETFs have hundreds of billions invested into weapons manufacturers, some of which make cluster munitions, white phosphorus, and depleted uranium rounds. That earned them all a D rating from the organization.

UMass refuses to consider divestment

Chris Brady describes himself as an “institutional guy.”

After being elected as UMass Amherst student trustee in March 2023, Brady hoped to effect change within the shared governance framework designed to give students a say in the university’s operations. He saw himself as a liaison between university leadership and students pursuing divestment amid Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which has killed at least 37,000 since October.

When students set up a pro-Palestinian encampment on campus on May 7, the activists demanded the university disclose its investments and divest from weapons manufacturers and companies on the BDS focus list. Brady drafted a divestment proposal echoing these demands that he submitted to Chancellor Javier Reyes. He said that Reyes assured him that the proposal would be considered by the Board of Trustees during its June meeting.

Brady called the opportunity to present the case for divestment “the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life.” 

Shortly before police arrested 134 demonstrators at the encampment, it was representatives of the university’s newly formed Demonstration Response and Safety Team who addressed the protestors with a megaphone telling them to disperse. The administrators told those gathered that Brady’s divestment proposal was on the agenda for the Board of Trustees meeting in June and that the UMass Foundation received, and would review, the divestment proposal, according to UMass’ own timeline of the demonstration.

However, three days before the meeting, the board’s secretary informed Brady that the proposal wasn’t on the agenda, according to an email he shared with The Shoestring. He described the experience as “crushing.” He said he had spent weeks asking about the status of a divestment proposal, only to be met with silence.

The UMass Board of Trustees did not respond to a request for comment.

Brady also received an email from UMass General Counsel David Lowy two days before the board meeting. In the email, which Brady provided to The Shoestring, Lowy claimed that the proposal was “withdrawn on its own terms.” Lowy cited the second paragraph of the May 7 proposal addressed to Reyes, which stipulated that “if at any point you choose to arrest or sanction students, this offer for dialogue and negotiation is off the table.”

However, during a May 14 special meeting of the Faculty Senate where Reyes and UMass Amherst Police Chief Tyrone Parham answered questions about the encampment response, Reyes reiterated the claim that the divestment proposal was on the agenda, according to the meeting minutes. 

The Faculty Senate meeting came seven days after students and faculty were arrested.

Brady said Reyes approached him following the Senate meeting to tell him they would discuss the upcoming agenda item further. Brady said that conversation never happened.

The Shoestring caught up with Reyes at an unrelated university event on June 2 to ask him about the divestment proposal and no-confidence motions against him from students and faculty. He declined to comment, deferring to university spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski.

Blaguszewski, in turn, referred The Shoestring to the UMass Foundation, which did not respond to an interview request. Blaguszewski also pointed The Shoestring to a “University Statements on War in Gaza and Campus Protests” page on the UMass Amherst website.

The email from Lowy informed Brady that he was allotted a speaking opportunity at the Board of Trustees meeting on June 7 to discuss divestment. During his speech, Brady said board members turned off their cameras, shuffled in their seats, or otherwise appeared not to be listening. Brady said his speech was cut after three minutes, with the board citing “time constraints.” He emailed his resignation letter to the board after the meeting.

Shared governance

Kevin Young, a history professor at UMass and a member of the group Faculty for Justice in Palestine, argues that the lack of transparency with UMass’ endowment and the roadblocks activists have run into calling for divestment are by design. To Young, they are part of the university’s subversion of shared governance.

Brady agreed, claiming the student trustee position felt “deliberately hard to navigate.” 

“It feels like everything needs to be greenlit by the real adults,” he said.

Following successful no-confidence votes against Reyes from the Student Government Association, faculty, and the Graduate Employees Organization after the encampment arrests, UMass system President Marty Meehan and UMass Board of Trustees Chair Stephen Karam reaffirmed their support for the chancellor.

Reacting to their statements, Young said it “speaks to the bankruptcy of those leaders themselves and to the undemocratic nature of the university system.” He called the idea of shared governance at UMass “farcical.”

Young highlighted the fact that unelected leaders like Meehan, Karam, and the rest of the Board of Trustees are the only ones who could decide to fire Reyes, while majorities of faculty and students voting for Reyes’ ouster remain symbolic gestures.

Young said Brady’s inability to get a divestment proposal on the agenda, even though he is one of the few elected members of the board, is evidence of the intentional undermining of student power. 

“I thought the way to make change was to work within the system,” Brady said.

Now, Brady says if he were a student activist or trustee pursuing change in the coming school year, he would suggest “never accepting a meeting with Chancellor Reyes or ever trying to work with the Board of Trustees.”

Rüya Hazeyen, a leader in UMass SJP, shared Brady’s distrust of university leadership. She argues Reyes and other administrators negotiated in bad faith on May 7.

Hazeyen said the biggest lesson SJP has learned is that “closed-door meetings and even just meetings in general with administrators are never going to bring us what we want.”

To both Brady and Young, an intentional hampering of shared governance extends to attempts at divestment. Both mentioned a divestment vote that passed through the Student Government Association but, like the no-confidence motions, holds no inherent power.

Young arrived at UMass in 2015 during a push for fossil fuel divestment from students. After the Board of Trustees voted in favor of divesting from direct holdings in fossil fuels, the university celebrated the move, with Meehan saying in a statement that he was “proud of the students and the entire University community for putting UMass at the forefront of a vital movement, one that has been important to me throughout my professional life.”

Yet, without an accessible way to see where the UMass Foundation invested its money, students and faculty leading the movement were left in the dark, unsure if the university even had direct holdings in fossil fuels in the first place, Young said.

Young called UMass’ widely publicized climate initiatives from years past “essentially stillborn.”

Young submitted a divestment proposal for indirect fossil fuel holdings through the foundation’s Socially Responsible Investment Advisory Committee, though he said its effect on investment practices remains unclear. He submitted the proposal in April and said he hasn’t received a response.

A document detailing the principles of the committee, which was established in 2014 as an official divestment channel, says it “shall address allegations of social injury resulting from Foundation investments,” but also clarifies that the “objective for the Endowment Fund is to achieve the highest long-term investment return on investment assets.”

“Fiduciary responsibilities”

Young said administrators and board members have responded to divestment calls by claiming they can’t “disentangle” themselves from ETFs and other pooled investments that have holdings in “offensive” companies.

Andrew Montes, the director of digital strategies at As You Sow, said that the UMass Foundation has other options, with many ETFs and other funds avoiding fossil fuels and weapons manufacturers. Dozens of funds with little to no links to defense and fossil fuels are listed on the As You Sow’s “Weapons Free Funds” and “Fossil Free Funds” indexes.

“Fiduciary responsibilities are sometimes raised to argue against reducing exposure to unsustainable investments,” Montes told The Shoestring in an email. “The state of the research today says that sustainable investing does not mean sacrificing returns — in fact, it can mean outperforming benchmarks.”

Hazeyen sees divestment as a tangible demand that can put pressure on companies linked to war.

“I think the problem is that a lot of people think that we’re out on the UMass grounds just protesting and sitting in without these set goals,” Hazeyen said.

Hazeyen sees the divestment push as a “small part” of a greater effort that echoes the struggle against South African apartheid in the 1980s. To Hazeyen, divestment at a prominent university like UMass Amherst could create a domino effect, with other universities following suit. 

“It implicates all of us,” she said of the university’s financial ties.

Dan McGlynn is an independent reporter studying journalism at UMass Amherst and a summer intern for The Shoestring. He can be reached at

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