A group of University of South Florida students holds a protest on March 18, 2024, during a USF Board of Trustees meeting at Marshall Student Center in Tampa. Many of the students later took part in a hunger strike calling for the university to divest from companies tied to Israel's war effort in Gaza. Their signs bore the names of some of the companies they are targeting. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Earlier this month, the University of South Florida student senate passed a bill calling on the school to stop investing in companies that support Israel as its monthslong offensive in Gaza continues.

The Student Government president and USF’s Hillel group condemned the bill, drawing pushback from the Student Government vice president. The controversy began in March with protests and a hunger strike by a group of students also pushing for divestment from Israel, but USF’s board of trustees refused their demands.

It’s not the first time the university has found itself in a debate over divestment.

In 1987, after a two-year campaign by students and faculty, USF divested from some companies supporting South Africa and its system of racial segregation known as apartheid.

The circumstances are different: World opinion was less divided over apartheid than it is today over war in the Middle East. Florida law has been changed to require that investments by public universities are based on potential returns and risks — not social or political issues. And USF has grown into a much bigger institution that uses fund managers to handle investments.

But the two episodes share some of the same general themes and tensions.

The mid-1980s saw a wave of activism across Florida’s college campuses. During a 40-day sleep-in on the steps of the University of Florida’s administration building, protesters demanded the school divest from funds tied to South Africa. Florida State University, USF and other schools saw faculty and student protests and teach-ins.

At USF, faculty members led the way. History professors Nancy Hewitt and her husband, Steven Lawson, first got involved in activism during the 1960s, and in 1984 protested a visit to campus by Henry Kissinger. The former secretary of state was being paid $20,000 and backed out of the appearance after a hubbub over the price tag.

The following year, Hewitt and Lawson— now professors emeritus at Rutgers University — became active in the movement to divest from South African over apartheid.

To Lawson, it was an extension of teaching.

John Lott Brown was president of the University of South Florida from 1978 to 1987.
John Lott Brown was president of the University of South Florida from 1978 to 1987. [ Times ]

“We saw protest as an adjunct to education,” he said in a recent interview. “We thought our students should be educated in ways that were outside the classroom. We had a fierce commitment to public education.”

Soon, students joined the movement, forming the Student Coalition Against Apartheid and Racism. Protests on campus likened apartheid to Jim Crow laws in the United States.

The USF president at the time, John Lott Brown, said he would not support the university divesting funds, but instead favored a policy urging companies involved in South Africa to sponsor scholarships at USF.

Protests on campus continued and multiple student organizations supported divestment, with support from editorials in the USF student newspaper.

The university was estimated to have around a quarter of a million dollars invested in companies involved in South Africa at the time, while the total for UF was estimated at between $1.5 million to $3 million.

The financial impact was less important than the message, said Jacob Ivey, a history professor at Florida Memorial University who has researched anti-apartheid movements in Florida.

“The number that we’re talking about is not massive,” he said. “The big part was about people not realizing the ties that these companies have with South Africa.”

By 1986, the Board of Regents, the governing board of the State University System at the time, proposed guidelines that university foundations invest only in companies that adhere to the Sullivan principles — a code of conduct for corporations that called out segregation.

That summer, Brown asked 11 American companies that did business in South Africa to sponsor a Black African student to attend USF, according to archives compiled by USF historian Andy Huse. But all 11 companies rejected that idea.

By 1987, according to Ivey, the cities of Tampa, Gainesville, and Miami began to restrict investments in South Africa. The USF Foundation also began a process of divestment and adopted a policy that any new investments would be focused on firms with “no business ties to South Africa as long as the new investments will be of ‘an equal statistical risk,’” according to Huse’s chronology.

An aerial view shows the University of South Florida's Tampa campus in 1987. That year, the USF Foundation agreed that any future investments would have no business ties to South Africa.
An aerial view shows the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus in 1987. That year, the USF Foundation agreed that any future investments would have no business ties to South Africa. [ Times (1987) ]

It’s difficult to compare that era with today, the experts said.

Ivey said the growing populations of Jewish Americans, Arabs and Muslims in Florida have more of a personal stake in events than many did with apartheid in the 1980s. “Very few people then had ever met a South African or knew a South African,” he said.

Hewitt sees other differences, too.

“There are more divisions that seem harder to cross,” she said. “It seemed like there was still room to sit down and talk to each other then.”

Lawson said the university itself has become larger and more bureaucratic, and the days of marching up to administrators and asking for meetings are long gone.

“We knew the deans, we knew the provost, we knew the presidents,” Lawson said. “There didn’t seem to be a threat. There was no threat to anybody in doing it. The administrators knew we were all important scholars. It was a whole group of people who had respectability. Those days, I think the administration just thought, ‘Let them say what they wish.’”

He also said faculty seem more unlikely to get involved in protests in today’s climate, where tenure is more restricted and new Florida laws limit what professors can teach about social issues.

“You have to now tread very carefully on anything about race, about religion, about gender,” he said. “We wouldn’t have had that in the 1980s.”

And while the laws that allowed apartheid were repealed, Lawson, who was born in 1945, said he remains pessimistic about Israelis and Palestinians resolving their differences.

“We’ve been dealing with this my entire lifetime,” he said. “It’s no closer to being resolved today than when I was a youngster.”

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.