Ahmad Saadaldin and members of the group USF Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) thought that this time, they were going to be successful. For over a year, they've been working to change how the University of South Florida's $391 million endowment operates when it comes to politically sensitive areas, particularly in relation to Israel and Palestine.
A year ago, the organization had a referendum placed on the ballot for the student body general elections, but USF Student Government removed it. Student newspaper The Oracle reported at the time that USFSG officials said the referendum hadn't been vetted and was also beyond the scope of student politics.
This spring, USF SJP tried again, and collected over 10,000 students' signatures on a petition.
"It wasn't hard really to get students to find out about this, to learn about this, and they just agreed with it instantly, they clicked," said Saadaldin, the SJP President and a senior public relations major. "They really agreed with the movement, and they felt like, 'Yeah, our university should invest in an ethical manner."
He and other SJP members sat down earlier this month with representatives from the USF Foundation, which oversees the university's endowment, and presented them with the petition and other information.
The petition sought three things: greater transparency in the Foundation’s investment plan, a policy that ensured the endowment invests in a socially just manner with regards to human rights and environmental matters, and divestiture from corporations that SJP says are complicit with human rights violations against the Palestinian people.
That includes companies like Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, according to the petition.
The thought was the information would be brought before the full USF Foundation Board of Trustees at their meeting next week.
Instead, on Wednesday, the Foundation's Investment Committee denied their request, voting unanimously in favor of a motion that stated:
“The USF Foundation will not divest investments based on requests from individuals or groups, nor will the investment policy or process be halted. In making this decision, the Foundation affirms that the investment process will not be politicized and will continue to be guided by the Foundation’s mission, fiduciary responsibilities and state or federal law or regulation.”
Committee members also stated that bylaws and guidelines already in place handle the concerns the petition addresses.
The crowd of SJP members and supporters that had filled the USF Alumni Center meeting room left dejected shortly after the vote. Saadaldin wasn't happy that they weren't allowed to present their evidence to the full committee, which he accused of ignoring the petition's focus.
"They kept saying, 'We don't want to politicize our investments,' and they just ignored the fact the petition's a human rights petition, so they're basically saying, 'Don't talk about our investments...don't make it about human rights,'" Saadaldin said. "They just kept focusing on the politics of it, but this petition was about human rights and they ignored that."
Some opponents to SJP's efforts argued to the contrary, accusing the group of deliberately misstating the purpose of their work.
Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, executive director of Hillels of the Suncoast, which oversees all of the campus Hillel organizations in the Tampa area, told The Tampa Tribune that members of SJP “are trying to de-legitimize the state of Israel through falsehoods, half-truths and blatant lies.”
Rosenthal said that included telling USF students the petition was about defending human rights, but not including the fact that included divesting from companies involved in the Middle East, according to Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.
And while this vote may effectively end their current effort, Saadaldin says the SJP will regroup - again.
"Just like last year, when the referendum was invalidated - 2,500 signatures were also ignored - this year, 10,000 signatures and 10,000 students were ignored," he said. "So it's demoralizing, but we'll definitely keep up the effort and we'll never stop."