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In the 1980s, he led student protests. Now, he's a college dean

Pedro Noguera at TED@NewYork talent search.
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Pedro Noguera at TED@NewYork talent search.

The term divestment has come up a lot over the past few weeks as pro-Palestinian students around the county demand that their universities divest their assets from companies doing business with Israel.

Forty years ago, there was another divestment movement, when students wanted to end minority rule known as apartheid in South Africa. UC Berkeley was a focal point of that movement, and their student body president, Pedro Noguera, was also one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement there.

Noguera is now dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, one of the many college campuses with ongoing demonstrations over the war in Gaza. He spoke with Weekend Edition Sunday host Ayesha Rascoe about his role leading student protests at UC Berkeley against apartheid in the 1980s.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Ayesha Rascoe: Take us back to Berkeley in the 1980s. How did the idea of divestment come about?

Pedro Noguera: So there was a push that started in the seventies, really, but built up that there needed to be sanctions against the South African government because the United States and many other countries and corporations were doing business in South Africa, which in effect was propping up the apartheid government. So the idea of sanctions led to the idea that we need to get companies to disinvest from South Africa. And many universities then started looking at their portfolios and many large church religious organizations did the same thing. And we stuck with it. We really studied the portfolio and started raising questions at the Board of Regents meetings about how we were investing university holdings. Over time, it led to a real critical analysis of the university's responsibility to invest in corporations that upheld its values.

Sproul Hall at University of California, Berkeley.
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Sproul Hall at University of California, Berkeley.

Rascoe: Tell us about how the protests grew and what your role was.

Noguera: The protest started with marches. Then we had a huge sit in at Sproul Hall, which is kind of the main administration building. One hundred sixty-eight people were arrested, myself included, and that really set off a number of events. I think what was really important was our organizing because it wasn't limited to a small number of activists. We were able to get support from students who had fraternities and sororities, graduate, undergraduate, as well as faculty and staff across the campus. So our numbers were just so much bigger and we did a lot of education work, we did teach ins, and that really helped because many people didn't understand South Africa, didn't understand what divestment was about. And so education and organizing was really a critical part of the work.

Rascoe: How did the Berkeley administration react to the protests? As I mentioned, the police were called in at one point and how did you feel about that?

Noguera: Well, we expected that and we always were nonviolent. We always maintained actually dialogue with the administration throughout. They weren't happy about what we were doing, but we tried to assure them that this was not about destroying the university or tearing it down. This was about making the point politically. I think we understood that it was not going to happen quickly because they were quite dismissive. Initially, they did not believe that students had a role to play in determining where they invested their stocks. But we pushed for over two years and it took time, but eventually we won.

Rascoe: So fast forward to today. You're now a dean at USC, which, unlike Berkeley, isn't known for a history of protesting. What are you seeing now compared to what you saw as a student at Berkeley?

Noguera: It's really different because there was never a pro-apartheid group we had to contend with. There is a pro-Israel group, a pro-Zionist group. There are many Jewish faculty and students who see the protest as being anti-Semitic. I don't see it that way. And I know many Jewish friends and colleagues who don't see it that way. The other thing that was different is this group, the ones that have been building these encampments, don't seem to be doing a lot of educating and organizing. And so they're pretty small and that makes them more easily isolated.

Rascoe: What do you tell your students now who may come to you? They know your history and they'll say, what advice do you have for us if we we want to get involved?

Noguera: My advice is always be careful about who you're out there with. There are elements out there who are agitators, who are provocative. You got to really be careful because they will divert the message to be the destruction of property and violence away from the focus of the protest. Then also build alliances with groups that will share your interests – religious groups, church groups, other students, because isolation will limit the movement. And I see that happening now on many of these campuses.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.