Barnard President Sian Beilock Responds To SGA Referendum Results, Will Not Move Forward With Referendum
Written by Bwog Staff
Editor’s note (1): Updated on 4/23 at 2:03 pm to address factual errors in President Beilock’s letter, as well as to correct inaccuracies regarding SGA’s and the College’s actions.
Editor’s note (2): Updated on 4/23 at 4:24 pm to add statements from Nas Abd Elal, a member of CUAD, and Aryeh.
Editors’s note (3): Updated on 4/24 at 12:30 pm to correct mathematical errors in a previous version of this post, which had stated that more than 30% of the Barnard student body voted for the referendum (our corrected number is 28.5%). Also, updated to include information regarding SGA’s response to this email.
Editor’s note (4): Updated on 5/1 at 8:00 pm to add statements regarding the referendum sent from President Beilock to SGA on 5/1.
In an email sent out earlier today to the Barnard community, President Sian Beilock wrote that, if requested, the College will not take action to divest from companies with ties to Israel. President Beilock wanted to inform students of the college’s intentions ahead of the Student Government Association’s (SGA) discussions this week following last week’s student body vote in favor of the CUAD referendum. According to President Beilock, the referendum’s requests do not meet the standards of consideration for the Board of Trustees.
The referendum, which passed last Wednesday by a margin of 28.6% with a voter turnout of 49.9%, could lead SGA to send a letter encouraging the college to divest from eight companies associated with Israel. This week, SGA will discuss their plans going forward. However, according to Beilock, whatever SGA decides is irrelevant, because the College does not intend to take action, as the referendum does not fulfill two standards required for any case presented to the Board of Trustees that’s related to Barnard’s endowment.
These two standards are first, upholding the mission of the College in promoting freedom of expression; and second, an obvious consensus among the student body. According to Beilock, an institutional stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict would “chill the discourse” in which members of the student body should feel encouraged to participate freely. In addition, she wrote that although the referendum did pass by a majority, those who voted to support the referendum represent less than 30% of the student body and thus cannot be considered a general consensus.
Although about 50% of the Barnard student body voted in the SGA elections, not all of these students opted to vote in the referendum. Thus, the 741 students who voted yes represent 28.5% of the student body. Those who voted no represent 15.8% of the student body, and 55.7% did not vote. These numbers are based on a Spring 2018 enrollment number of 2,604 students, provided to Bwog by the Barnard Media Relations department. Our calculations can be seen on the right.
Beilock’s email was initially written to the Student Government Association, then forwarded to the greater student body for transparency. In the email, she mentions thousands of alumnae who opposed the referendum, thereby stating that the College will not be taking action for divestment in order to “foster civil discourse.” In fact, the petition of those opposing the referendum is not composed solely of alumnae–at least 1,051 of the “thousands of signers” are simply listed as a “Friend and Ally” of the College (not an alumna, parent, or donor).
Bwog reached out to Nas Abd Elal, a member of CUAD, and Aryeh, for comments regarding the email. Their responses have been included at the end of the post.
The College has also prepared a Q&A for any questions on the referendum itself. A representative of SGA told us that the Executive Board will be responding to President Beilock’s email during external announcements during their regular Monday night meeting.
At the meeting following this email, the SGA Executive Board issued a statement emphasizing the board’s commitment to the democratic process and to “fulfill [the council’s] duty to advocate for students to the administration.” The SGA leaders expressed that the petition Beilock references does not represent the diversity of opinions held by Barnard alumnae, and that her email trivializes the council’s process and the voices of the students it represents. A past SGA referendum to divest from fossil fuel companies was not dismissed, this statement points out, even though it only received 565 student votes (almost 200 fewer votes than the CUAD referendum). Rather than working with SGA in an open dialogue to discuss divestment, as has been the process in the past, while “SGA was and is in the process of deciding how and whether to bring this issue to the administration, the President and the Board of Trustees have had their own dialogue and have chosen to dismiss the possibility of moving forward.”
Last night, SGA voted to write a letter of support to the Barnard administration for divestment from the eight companies associated with Israel listed in the referendum. The council also voted to write a “dissenting statement” regarding President Beilock’s response, and add it to this letter. During next Monday’s meeting (April 30), the council will vote on the wording of this letter; if it passes, the letter will be sent to the administration that night.
The SGA Executive Board’s full statement and more details on last night’s Rep Council meeting can be found in Bwog’s SGA coverage post for this week.
On May 1, President Beilock sent a message directly to SGA responding to their original letter sent to the administration. In the statement, Beilock reiterates and re-explaining Barnard College’s reasons for disregarding the referendum. Her response has been included at the end of this post.
The email reads:
Dear Members of the Barnard Community:
I am forwarding a letter I have sent to the Student Government Association (SGA) representative council regarding the results of its recent referendum on whether the College should be asked to divest any holdings from certain companies doing business with Israel. While it is important that the students have the opportunity to discuss the issues at hand, it is equally important to provide students with clarity on the College’s thinking prior to SGA discussions taking place this week.
We also have prepared a Q&A to provide context on the referendum https://www.barnard.edu/news/sga-referendum
Sian Leah Beilock, President
Dear Members of the Student Government Association (SGA) representative council:
I write to provide input on the referendum that the Student Government Association (SGA) recently conducted and to be transparent about the actions Barnard College will take with respect to any request related to this referendum. You are of course free to continue your discussions on this issue, but it would be misleading to not provide you with clarity on the College’s thinking prior to the SGA discussions on this topic that I understand will take place this week.
For any referendum related to Barnard’s endowment to be considered by the Board of Trustees, it should meet two exacting standards. The issue under discussion must relate directly to Barnard’s mission, and there must be a clear consensus across the Barnard community that the recommended approach is the best means to address the issue at hand.
The referendum you are currently considering does not meet these two standards. First, taking an institutional stand amid the complexities of the Mideast conflict would risk chilling campus discourse on a set of issues that members of our community should be able to discuss and debate freely. Choosing a side therefore would be inconsistent with our mission. Second, there is clearly not consensus across the Barnard community on whether or how to address the issue. While a majority of students who voted support the referendum, this is less than 30% of Barnard’s student body. Thousands of alumnae have also voiced their opposition to the referendum. For these reasons, Barnard will not take action in response to this referendum.
It is imperative that all of us at Barnard work hard to foster a community in which difficult topics can be discussed in an environment free from fear and hate. I urge you to consider how SGA can best foster civil discourse moving forward across a range of complex issues so as to allow for the highest quality education and scholarship on our campus.
I wish you continuing success with your important work.
Sian Leah Beilock
President, Barnard College
Nas Abd Elal, a member of CUAD, says regarding the referendum:
It’s a shameful rejection of student-organized democratic processes. The axe came down because the Administration can pay lip service to student activism, dole out meager offerings to minoritized groups on campus, and incessantly invoke the specter of 1968, only so long as it conforms to the institutional interests. Beilock is preemptively taking advantage of her position to assuage the anxieties of those opposed to ethical investment.
The email, and the Administration’s response to the referendum results in general, represents a broader pattern of exceptionalizing Palestine solidarity work (what the analysts over at Palestine Legal term “the Palestine Exception”). The Administration didn’t feel the need to send out a similar email when Barnard Divest passed their referendum on divesting from climate change deniers– despite the fact that student participation in the referendum was under SGA’s threshold. Beilock carefully avoids the fact that this elections season broke the record for voter participation, with nearly half of the student body participating. CUAD’s campaign targets companies complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people, but Beilock can’t even bring herself to say “Palestine” once in the statement, mentioning only a vague “Mideast conflict.” Instead, Beilock presents her own interpretation of student life and student activism, using arguments that would be absurd to invoke in any other context.
Beilock argues that Barnard should not take “an institutional stand amid the complexities of the Mideast conflict,” ignoring the fact that investment in the eight companies targeted by CUAD’s campaign does constitute an ‘institutional stand’ by virtue of the College’s investment portfolio. The use of the word “incivility” also conjurs the typical racist rhetoric that is used to discredit any sort of activism that challenges institutional complicity in global systems of oppression.
Aryeh issued a statement on its Facebook page early this afternoon:
We are heartened by President Beilock’s statement recognizing that the referendum in support of divestment is inconsistent with Barnard’s mission. As we have consistently articulated, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an extremely complicated issue that this referendum oversimplified and misrepresented. Despite this distortion, the majority of the Barnard students did not support the referendum. In addition, thousands of alumnae voiced their opposition to the referendum and the hateful movement it enables. This demonstrates that the Barnard community does not accept the simplistic narrative that the BDS movement and its advocates propagate about the conflict.
Moreover, we are further encouraged by the President’s acknowledgement that choosing a side on this issue contradicts Barnard’s commitment to free discourse. Enabling the BDS movement would only further damage campus discourse. Proponents of BDS at Barnard have consistently opposed free discourse by pushing for academic boycotts, promoting a policy of “anti-normalization,” excluding critical voices from activist spaces, slandering their peers as “racists,” and advancing a reductive view of the conflict that demonizes the Jewish state.
Aryeh will continue to stand against those who promote fear and hate at Barnard and looks forward to fostering a community of civil discourse by re-dedicating ourselves to educating the student body about the complexities of the conflict.
President Beilock responded to SGA’s letter on May 1:
Dear Members of the Student Government Association representative council,
Thank you for writing regarding the recent Student Government Association (SGA) referendum. As I wrote last week, the College will not take action in response to this referendum.
SGA plays an important role as a moderator of student discussion and education on campus. You have the opportunity to invite students with diverse – and sometimes opposing – ideas into a shared conversation free of fear and hate. You can be a forum for students who may otherwise feel they have no place to express their views. The very fact that you have included a dissenting opinion in your letter illustrates the importance of open dialogue – something we must all work to preserve.
The College has made a firm decision on the divestment question brought up in your referendum. Still, the broader issues related to conflict in the Mideast have been, and continue to be, worthy of ongoing campus dialogue and scholarship. Fostering discussion of important and difficult topics in a way that makes room for diverse views and helps everyone to be heard is an essential part of a Barnard education. I look forward to working with you moving forward to help advance civil discourse around complicated issues facing our campus and beyond.
Sian Leah Beilock