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College campuses across America have been shaken by unrest that has resulted in clashes with police, shut down some classrooms and captured the attention of the nation.

Although much of the initial focus has been on antisemitic incidents and how university officials and police are responding to the demonstrations, all of this raises a fundamental question: What do the pro-Palestinian protesters actually want?

The specific demands of the protesters vary somewhat from school to school yet the central demand is that universities divest from companies linked to Israel or businesses that are profiting off its war with Hamas. Universities have largely refused to budge on this demand, and experts say divestment may not have a significant impact on the companies themselves.

Other common threads include demanding universities disclose their investments, sever academic ties with Israeli universities and support a ceasefire in Gaza.

“We asked that Columbia University pull all investments away from companies that profit off of the genocide of Palestinians or Israeli companies that profit off of the oppression of Palestinians,” Althea, a student protester at Columbia, told CNN. Althea asked for her last name not to be used for privacy reasons.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Student demonstrators occupy the pro-Palestinian "Gaza Solidarity Encampment" on the West Lawn of Columbia University on April 24, 2024 in New York City.

Protest movements at some universities are also calling for school officials to protect free speech and spare students from being punished for participating in the protests.

At the University of Southern California, where dozens were arrested on Wednesday, protesters are demanding “full amnesty” for those brought into custody and that there be “no policing on campus.”

01:46 - Source: CNN
See the scene from pro-Palestinian protests at USC

At Princeton University, protesters are demanding, among other things, that the Ivy League school end research on weapons of war “used to enable genocide,” according to a flyer at a campus demonstration on Thursday.

Some demands are local.

At Columbia University, where the pro-Palestinian protest movement started last week, protesters are demanding support for low-income Harlem residents, including housing and reparations, according to Columbia University Apartheid Divest, the student group responsible for organizing the encampment.

The Columbia protesters are also calling for the university to “disclose and sever all ties” with the New York Police Department.

Students are also calling for an academic boycott from Israeli universities. For example, Columbia protesters want the university to sever ties with the school’s center in Tel Aviv and a dual degree program with Tel Aviv University. New York University protesters use the school’s Tel Aviv center as a rallying cry as well.

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Pro-Palestinian protesters chant at University of Chicago police as a student encampment is dismantled on Tuesday, May 7.
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Maintenance staff and waste disposal crews clean up after police cleared a pro-Palestinian protest encampment on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on Friday, May 10.
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Protesters carry Palestinian flags during the University of Michigan's main commencement in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Saturday, May 4. Protesters were removed from ceremony after briefly interrupting the proceedings. No one was arrested, according to Melissa Overton, the university's deputy police chief and public information officer.
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Pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrate on the New York University campus on May 3.
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Police officers block off an area on the Portland State University campus in Portland, Oregon, on May 2.
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Pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrate on the George Washington University campus in Washington, DC, on May 2.
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Protesters deface a car after a man drove it toward a crowd at Portland State University on May 2. The driver stopped just short of a group of protesters and sprayed them with "some kind of pepper spray," police said.
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Activists make protest signs inside a pro-Palestinian encampment at George Washington University on May 2.
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Emma, right, sheds a tear as she and her friend Aryn listen to the names of Israeli hostages as they attend a pro-Israel rally at George Washington University on May 2.
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A protester is detained at the University of California, Los Angeles, on May 2.
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Pro-Palestinian protesters stand their ground after police breached their encampment at UCLA on May 2.
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Police take down a barricade as protesters gather at an encampment at UCLA on May 2.
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Pro-Palestinian protesters gather outside Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus after a group created an encampment inside the building in New York on May 1.
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A man is detained after a scuffle as pro-Palestinian protesters rally outside Fordham on May 1.
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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators rebuild a barricade around an encampment at UCLA on May 1. Before police were deployed to campus, pro-Palestinian protesters and Israel supporters were clashing at the school, according to multiple reports.
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Police officers stand guard after clashes erupted on the campus of UCLA.
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Counter-protesters attack a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA.
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Police use a vehicle named "the bear" to enter Hamilton Hall, which was occupied by protesters at Columbia University in New York on April 30. About 300 protesters were arrested, according to the NYPD.
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Police detain a protester at Columbia on April 30.
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Pro-Palestinian protesters climb a fence during demonstrations at The City College of New York on April 30.
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An NYPD bus transports arrested demonstrators at Columbia on April 30.
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Protesters confront police at The City College of New York on April 30.
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NYPD officers march into Columbia on April 30.
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Protesters occupy Columbia's Hamilton Hall early on April 30.
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Protesters barricade themselves inside Hamilton Hall on April 30. Dozens of protesters were occupying Hamilton Hall, one of the campus buildings also occupied during 1968 student protests, according to a social media post from Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine.
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A protester breaks the windows of the front door of Hamilton Hall in order to secure a chain around it and prevent authorities from entering early on April 30.
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Protesters at Brown University celebrate April 30 after reaching a deal with the administration to end their encampment in Providence, Rhode Island. The university agreed to hold a vote on divestment from companies that support Israel, according to the protest group.
Seyma Bayram
Columbia University students gather for a picket organized by the Student Workers Union (UAW Local 2710) on April 29.
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Pro-Palestinian protesters confront a Texas state trooper at the University of Texas in Austin on April 29.
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A protester at Columbia University wears the university's disciplinary notice on April 29.
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Demonstrators march past Low Library while chanting "Free Palestine" on Columbia's campus on April 29.
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Students from George Washington University stand on top of police barricades as they protest in Washington, DC, on April 29.
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Pro-Palestinian students and activists participate in a demonstration at UCLA on April 28.
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Students and pro-Palestinian supporters occupy a plaza at New York University on April 26.
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Georgia State Patrol officers detain a demonstrator on the campus of Emory University during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Atlanta on April 25.
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Jewish students wave Israeli flags as a counter-protest near a pro-Palestinian camp at UCLA on April 25.
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Texas state troopers try to break up a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Texas in Austin on April 24.
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Students at the University of Texas at Austin watch a protest from a classroom window on April 24.
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Students are arrested during the protest in Austin on April 24. There were dozens of arrests. University police had warned students in an email that they faced more arrests if they didn't disperse from the site.
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Protesters link arms at Emerson College in Boston on April 24.
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House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks to the media on the campus of Columbia University after meeting with Jewish students on April 24. He called on the school's president to resign during a tense news conference where the crowd repeatedly interrupted him and at times loudly booed him and other Republican lawmakers who were with him.
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Demonstrators' tents are set up on Columbia's campus in New York on April 24. The school is also preparing for graduation ceremonies.
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Demonstrators work on a banner April 24 at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
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Protesters demonstrate at the University of Texas in Austin on April 24.
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Demonstrators and Texas state troopers face one another in Austin on April 24.
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Police stand near protesters at the University of Southern California on April 24.
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New York police officers stand near protesters outside the main entrance of Columbia University on April 24.
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Columbia students prepare to camp overnight on April 23.
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A group of Jewish and non-Jewish students gather at the Columbia encampment to celebrate Seder, a ritual feast at the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover. Columbia student Cameron Jones told CNN: "I am Jewish and, to me, Passover symbolizes perseverance and resilience. I think this encampment represents those two ideals because we have seen the university take countless measures to try to suppress our student activism, and here is us persevering through that."
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A makeshift memorial at Columbia, seen on April 23, pays tribute to Jewish hostages taken by Hamas in October.
Andres Kudacki/The New York Times/Redux
Students protest near New York University on April 23.
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Students at the University of California, Berkeley, set up an encampment at Sproul Hall on April 23.
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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators sit at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, on April 23. University police arrested at least 45 protesters the day before and charged them with criminal trespassing after they refused orders to leave.
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Police and protesters face off at New York University on April 22.
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Police officers clear away tents from an encampment at New York University on April 22.
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People watch from a window as New York University students set up a tent encampment on April 22.
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Students and pro-Palestinian supporters rally at The New School in New York on April 22.
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Students rally at an encampment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge on April 22.
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A pro-Palestinian protest is held at the steps of Columbia's Lowe Library on April 22.
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Some Columbia professors rally in support of their protesting students on April 22.
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Israeli flags are reflected in the sunglasses of a demonstrator in front of Columbia University on April 22.
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Student activists set up camp at a New School cafeteria on April 21.
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Pro-Palestinian protesters gather outside a Columbia building on April 20.
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Police officers stand near barriers as pro-Palestinian protesters gather outside of Columbia on April 18.

Is it possible to divest?

Still, divestment is at the top of the list of demands from protesters and the one they mention most often.

As Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson addressed students at Columbia on Wednesday, students chanted: “Disclose, divest, we will not stop we will not rest.”

Like many major universities, Columbia has a massive endowment. It was valued at $13.6 billion, as of mid-2023.

And there is a history of student activists targeting endowments during demonstrations. In the 1980s, students successfully persuaded Columbia to divest from apartheid South Africa.

More recently, Columbia and other universities have divested from fossil fuels and private prisons.

Charlie Eaton, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced and author of “Bankers in the Ivory Tower,” said Columbia can “absolutely” make the choice to divest from Israel-linked investments.

“It’s not unreasonable practice for schools to make decisions about how they invest based not just on maximizing investment returns, but also around principles of equity and justice in what they invest in,” he said.

But Mark Yudof, chairman of the Academic Engagement Network, which opposes campus antisemitism, said it’s not a simple solution to implement.

“The truth is it’s sometimes murky to figure out who is doing business in Israel and what the relationship is to the war,” Yudof said.

Yudof, the former president of the University of California, said he’s not aware of a single university that has divested from Israel despite years of pressure to do so.

“I don’t think it will happen,” he said.

‘Hostile and threatening’

However, none of the universities have announced plans to divest from Israel-linked investments and some experts say they will be very reluctant to accept this demand.

“A significant obstacle to divestment is that any university supporting divestment would be sending a clear signal that they either: (a) acquiesce in; or (b) support the destruction of the State of Israel and its citizens,” said Jonathan Macey, a professor at Yale Law School.

Macey said that while such a move may be supported by protesters, it would be “viewed as hostile and threatening to many students, faculty and staff.”

Lauren Post, an analyst at the Anti-Defamation League, said the push for divestment is related to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Although Post acknowledged that some individuals may be pushing for divestment as a way to hold Israel accountable, she said the ADL views the goals of BDS as antisemitic.

“The goal – ultimately dismantling the state of Israel, is antisemitic,” said Post.

Yudof, the former University of California president, said he also feels it is antisemitic.

“It smacks of a double standard. Why is it only Israel?” He criticized protesting college students for focusing on Israel instead of undemocratic regimes around the world, including Iran and Russia.

It’s worth noting, however, that the student protests don’t directly say they are affiliated with BDS.

“We are not going anywhere until our demands are met,” Khymani James, a student at Columbia University, said during a news briefing Wednesday.

James, a student activist associated with the Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) coalition, has since apologized for saying on video that “Zionists don’t deserve to live.”

James acknowledged the statement in a post on X, saying it was from an Instagram Live video in January. “I misspoke in the heat of the moment, for which I apologize.”

The apology came early Friday morning, hours after an interview with CNN at Columbia where James repeatedly declined to apologize for the video, saying that the focus should be on Palestinian liberation.

Universities don’t own that much stock

There is also a debate over how effective divestment campaigns are.

One issue is that selling stock in a company means the university would give up its influence over the company.

“Be careful what you ask for. If you sell your stock, someone else will buy it and they may be less concerned about the issue you care about,” said Cary Krosinsky, a lecturer at Yale who has advised university endowments.

Another issue is that while university endowments are large, public companies are much bigger. If a university divests, many companies would not even notice it.

University endowments own approximately 0.1% of public companies, according to research by Krosinsky.

“0.1% is not going to move the needle very much. Someone else will buy the stock and life will go on,” he said.

Most university funds are invested with private equity funds and hedge funds, rather than broad-ranging mutual or index funds.

Of course, the divestment push is about more than directly punishing companies. It’s about a desire to send a message and raise awareness.

More than wanting to take down defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, protesters would view divestment as a symbolic victory for justice and equality.

Students are “complicit in what this institution does,” graduate student Basil Rodriguez said to CNN Wednesday, noting that students pay tuition.

Rodriguez is Palestinian herself, and said her family members have been “murdered and executed” and displaced.

Student protesters say the demands to disclose and to divest are interconnected.

Protesters argue that many of the financial interests of universities are opaque and the links to Israel may be even greater than officials realize.

“At the same time, this is only the tip of the iceberg,” Rodriguez said. “We demand full financial transparency.”

This story has been updated to include James’ apology for statements James made in a video shared online.

CNN’s John Towfighi contributed to this report.