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CT’s roots are in the defense industry. Can its colleges truly divest?

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CT’s roots are in the defense industry. Can its colleges truly divest?

May 22, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Erica E. Phillips
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CT’s roots are in the defense industry. Can its colleges truly divest?
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Students gather around a Sikorsky Black Hawk Helicopter during “Lockheed Martin Day” at UConn.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon earlier this month, about 100 students gathered outside the Dodd Center for Human Rights on the University of Connecticut’s campus in Storrs for a press conference. 

While most of the school’s nearly 20,000 undergraduates were clearing out dorm rooms and posing for graduation photos in their caps and gowns, the impassioned group chanted in unison for an end to the war in Gaza. Days earlier, UConn leaders had cleared a cluster of tents where the protesters were camped out, and university police arrested two dozen students.

One by one, several students stepped up to a microphone and denounced the arrests as well as Israel’s campaign in Gaza, calling again on their university leaders to divest from the military manufacturers supplying Israeli Defense Forces with weapons. 

“Recent actions taken by the university have unfortunately shown that the administration cares more about appeasing big dollar donors and multinational corporations than the students, staff and faculty of this university,” said Adam Opin, the only undergraduate speaker that day who publicly shared his name.

This spring, as anti-war protesters pitched tents and occupied buildings on college campuses across the United States, the groups coalesced around a similar set of “demands” — conditions they said their institutions would have to meet in order for the students to vacate common spaces. Prominent among those demands was the insistence that college and university administrators disclose details about their endowment investments and divest funds from companies supporting Israel’s military operations. 

[RELATED: Student protests on CT campuses: A focus on ‘steadfastness’]

Student groups have deployed the strategy in Connecticut before, and it’s worked. In 1986, the UConn board of trustees sold stock in companies conducting business in South Africa in response to student protests of apartheid. In 2006, Yale University pledged to divest from the Sudanese government and in several oil companies operating there, citing the genocide in Darfur. More recently, Yale has set conditions fossil fuel companies must meet in order to maintain the university’s endowment investments, and it has canceled investments in private prison operators and assault weapons retailers

But divesting from military manufacturers is a line Connecticut’s prominent institutions of higher education don’t seem inclined to cross. 

Last month, the Yale Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility said the military weapons industry didn’t meet the board of trustees’ criteria for divestment — causing “grave social injury” — because the manufacturers offer “socially necessary” products that support national security and policing.

[RELATED: Yale clash over divestment continues after Gaza protests, arrests]

A representative of the UConn Foundation, which administers the university’s endowment, said in an emailed statement that its investments “are made through broadly diversified co-mingled funds managed by third-party investment managers. A survey of those holdings for the broad array of companies that may have defense, security, or aerospace divisions has not been undertaken.”

In reality, it’s even more complicated than that. For the flagship university in a state where defense manufacturers account for a significant portion of the economy and employ tens of thousands of highly skilled workers — many of whom were trained in Connecticut’s public post-secondary institutions — divestment would mean more than selling a few shares of stock.

The state’s top three military manufacturers — General Dynamics Electric Boat, RTX’s Pratt & Whitney and Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky — drew more than $20 billion in federal defense spending in 2022. Connecticut ranked seventh among states for total military spending and third in spending as a percentage of GDP (behind Virginia and Hawaii).

State and Congressional leaders regularly tout Electric Boat’s gargantuan nuclear submarines; Sikorsky’s iconic “Black Hawk” attack helicopters; and Pratt & Whitney’s F135 engines, which power the F-35 strike fighter jet. All are made in Connecticut, all for the U.S. military and its allies.

“Defense manufacturers form the backbone of the Connecticut state economy,” U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, whose district encompasses major operations of Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney, said in response to emailed questions. “The good paying union jobs that the defense sector provides are key to the economic security of thousands of individuals and families in Connecticut and across the United States.”

CT’s roots are in the defense industry. Can its colleges truly divest?
Marchers from Veterans for Peace are spending a 2-week stretch of their nearly 2-month march in Connecticut. Stops include the Naval Submarine Base New London and Electric Boat. Credit: Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

In remarks at an event last year celebrating Sikorsky’s 100th anniversary, Gov. Ned Lamont commended the company’s engineers.

“The precision of manufacturing in the 21st century by Sikorsky is second-to-none,” he said. “My obligation is to make sure we continue to train those people right here, to make sure you remain part of this great ecosystem.”

Pro-Palestinian student demonstrators would like to see that sense of “obligation” come to an end.

At the press conference, one young woman — representing a leftist student group known as UNCHAIN, which has pushed UConn to cut its ties with the defense industry — shared pointed comments (but declined to share her name). “War makers must hunt for well-trained industrial foot soldiers, and they look at us, the students of UConn, as their prey,” the woman said. “We implore the UConn administration: Do not further sell education to arms dealers.”

Moments later, as the final speaker wrapped up his comments — and as if on cue — what appeared to be a military helicopter fluttered over the Dodd Center plaza. The students laughed in disbelief, “booed” the aircraft then launched into an impromptu chant: “Shame on Sikorsky, shame on Sikorsky.”

In an emailed statement, a Lockheed Martin spokesperson wrote, "We will continue to support organizations and initiatives that help educate and inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists and mathematicians. We respect the right to peaceful protest and are committed to advancing STEM education and career readiness, including through partnerships with colleges and universities.”

'The Provisions State'

From its earliest days, Connecticut has proudly claimed its role as a key weapons supplier to America’s armed conflicts: First as the “Provisions State,” when it delivered arms to George Washington’s Army during the Revolutionary War, and later as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” providing weaponry to U.S. military campaigns during the first and second World Wars. 

That arsenal has included operations of prominent gunmakers like Smith & Wesson Brands, Remington Arms Co., O.F. Mossberg & Sons and the iconic Colt’s Manufacturing Co., which maintains its headquarters in West Hartford and recently was awarded a $57 million contract by the U.S. Army for assault rifles. (Most of the others have moved production to other states in recent years.)

More than 130,000 Connecticut residents work in the aerospace and defense sector. Military and defense operations in the state, which include both defense contractors and active-duty military personnel, account for as much as 12.5% of the state’s GDP, according to a report from defense sector association SENEDIA. 

At UConn, the names of military manufacturing companies adorn buildings, laboratories and endowed professorships. Last month, UConn unveiled the Pratt & Whitney Engineering Building on its Storrs campus. Pratt also sponsors five endowed chairs and professorships in the College of Engineering. During its annual “Lockheed Martin Day,” Sikorsky lands helicopters on the Student Union Mall and offers students rides over the campus.

My obligation is to make sure we continue to train those people right here, to make sure you remain part of this great ecosystem.

Gov. Ned Lamont

Both Yale and UConn receive millions of dollars through federal contracts and grants to conduct specialized research for the Department of Defense on projects ranging from advanced communications systems to environmental science and biomedical applications. One of the largest recent contracts awarded to UConn was a four-year, $10 million project to test welding materials and processes for RTX hypersonic missiles. UConn also collaborates closely with Electric Boat in research and development through the National Institute for Undersea Vehicle Technology.

“The University proudly partners with these and other companies, business organizations, and federal agencies in the shared pursuit of technological advancement related to the well-being of our society,” UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said in an emailed response to questions. “Their work is wide-ranging and highly valuable to society, including the development of many consumer products and best practices that advance critical areas such as transportation safety, sustainable building, resource conservation, protection against cyberattacks, and myriad other areas too numerous to count.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat from the Congressional district that encompasses the campuses of both UConn and Electric Boat, said in an emailed statement: “Our state’s ability to support our national security here and abroad would not be possible without the talented workforce that is trained-up through successful partnerships between employers and our institutions of higher education.”

Connecticut has also directed millions of taxpayer dollars toward the “Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative,” housed at the state’s community colleges and technical high schools; the workforce development program is assisting Electric Boat in its efforts onboarding thousands of workers to fulfill tens of billions of dollars in new ballistic missile submarine contracts for the U.S. Navy.

[RELATED: Pro-Palestinian protesters demand divestment at CT Capitol]

Tens of millions more in state dollars have supported military manufacturing operations through direct financial assistance and tax credit programs.

'Heightened demand'

On Oct. 7, militant Palestinian group Hamas attacked several communities in southern Israel, killing nearly 1,200 people — mostly civilians, including many young people at an outdoor concert — and taking more than 200 hostages. 

In the months since, in response to the attack, Israel’s military has killed more than 35,000 people in the densely populated Gaza Strip, a Palestinian enclave bordering southwest Israel and Egypt, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. Much of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has been displaced, many relocating to refugee camps where bombing has continued. Humanitarian aid organizations have had difficulty delivering food, and many Palestinians are starving, the Associated Press has reported. 

The conflict has spurred vigils and protests in Connecticut and around the world, triggering tensions between and within Israeli and Palestinian diasporas.

CT’s roots are in the defense industry. Can its colleges truly divest?
A poster outside a UConn classroom calls for the resignation of UConn President Radenka Maric and Alumni Trustee Bryan Pollard. Pollard is an associate general counsel for RTX Corp. Below it is a poster for a defense-related course. Credit: Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

The United States, a close ally of Israel, has beefed up shipments of American-made weapons and equipment to support the Israeli Defense Forces. Last week, the Biden Administration made plans to sell an additional $1 billion in weapons to Israel, several outlets reported.

Each year, the U.S. provides a baseline $3.3 billion in military aid to Israel, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, which includes contracts with large Connecticut operators. Sikorsky supplies CH-53K heavy lift helicopters, known as the King Stallion, to the Israeli Air Force and other U.S. allies. Pratt & Whitney’s F135 engines power Israel’s fleet of stealth fighter jets.

One of General Dynamics' other businesses outside of Connecticut, Ordnance and Tactical Systems, builds the highly destructive 2,000-pound bombs that Israel has been deploying in its campaign to destroy Hamas. The New York Times reported that Israel has dropped potentially hundreds of these bombs, which are rarely used by U.S. forces, in densely populated areas in Gaza. 

As is to be expected, the escalations in the military conflict have boosted the fortunes of America’s defense contractors. RTX, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics have all seen their stock prices rise by double-digit percentages since Oct. 7. 

A spokeswoman for RTX declined to answer questions for this story, citing a lack of adequate time to respond. But during a conference call discussing the company’s first quarter earnings, Chief Executive Christopher Calio said he was “pleased” with Congress’ recent passage of the annual federal spending bill, which increased the defense budget by 3% to $886 billion.

“Internationally, we continue to see heightened demand from U.S. allies,” he said. 

A Pratt & Whitney jet engine on the assembly line
Pratt & Whitney's F135 jet engines power F35 fighter planes used by the U.S. military and its allies. Credit: Courtesy of / Pratt & Whitney

A spokeswoman for Electric Boat didn’t respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment. Phebe Novakovic, CEO of parent company General Dynamics, said during a 2023 year-end earnings call in January that the company’s combat divisions — which include Ordnance and Tactical Systems — “had a wonderful quarter and a year with strong revenue growth, strong margin performance, good order activity and a strong pipeline of opportunity as we go forward.”

Lockheed Martin CEO James Taiclet said on his company’s most recent quarterly call, “The increasingly unstable geopolitical environment in the world today makes it essential for industry and government to strengthen our nation’s capabilities to deter and defend against further aggressive behavior against the U.S. and our allies.” Citing investments the company has made to respond to that need, Taiclet added, “As a result, we delivered robust revenue growth across the company.” 

None of that sits well with people who oppose Israel’s response to the Hamas attack — and the United States’ support. In recent months, the companies have faced protest demonstrations outside several of their manufacturing facilities, including Pratt & Whitney’s plant in Middletown.

“I think there is a true culture shift that has to happen, and that starts at places that are focused on education,” said Taran Samarth, a graduate student at Yale and a member of the Endowment Justice Coalition, an activist student organization that pushes the university’s endowment to divest from fossil fuels and other industries. At Yale this week, a group of protestors staged a walkout during commencement.

In response to emailed questions, a spokesperson for Yale said the school doesn’t publicly discuss its investments.

“If the headline tomorrow is that the second-largest endowment will fully divest in weapons manufacturing, that’s a shock to the sector that says, 'This is no longer a place for investment.' It removes incentives,” Samarth said. “For educational institutions, if we can pull away our funding sources from defense and military agencies and industries, and instead re-center on the communities we work in — what does New Haven need, not Lockheed Martin — that can push us toward this peace economy in a more meaningful way.”

(Earlier this week, student protestors at Wesleyan University agreed to take down their tents after negotiating an agreement with administrators to disclose details about the school's investments in the aerospace and defense sector. )

CT’s roots are in the defense industry. Can its colleges truly divest?
Multiple banners on Wesleyan's encampment advocated for divestment from weapons manufacturers. Credit: Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Members of Connecticut's Congressional delegation see it differently.

"Connecticut schools divesting from defense manufacturers would not change the incentives of Israel or Hamas in this conflict, nor would it limit the weapons available to them," DeLauro said in an email. "But it would weaken our national security, discourage investments in our economy that create jobs for Connecticut graduates, and embolden our adversaries around the world."

Courtney added: “As someone who supports President Biden’s decision to pause delivery of 2,000-pound bombs in order to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza, I agree that the deployment of armaments is always a legitimate area of debate. That debate should focus on public officials like the president and Congress who have the legal discretion to export such items, as opposed to a blanket boycott of an industrial base that our own national defense and our allies in Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific rely on," he said.

Graduating

Student organizers, many of whom have personal ties to Gaza, have formed the nucleus of the pro-Palestinian movement. But their calls for ceasefire, and demands of their schools to disclose endowment details and divest from the military machine, have given voice to concerns shared by many Connecticut residents. 

“They've led the way to bring attention to what's gone on in the Middle East that involves us, if not completely directly, somewhat directly through the military production that takes place in Connecticut,” said Clark Peters, a retired health care worker who recently attended a press conference held by UConn students to show his support for protesters who were arrested. 

Some Connecticut residents have participated in student protests on campuses. Some have organized their own as the movement grows beyond colleges and universities.

Members of Connecticut’s Congressional delegation have encountered protesters at community events in their districts. Local pacifist groups have called on Connecticut to divest public employee pension funds from companies supporting Israel’s war effort. And this month, Veterans for Peace is marching from Maine to Washington, D.C., making several stops in Connecticut.

A lot of people recognize the problem of the United States supplying Israel with the weaponry, sophisticated military weaponry, to bomb and kill and destroy an entire people. ... But, as many people say, what can you do? I need a job."

Clark Peters

“I think a lot of people recognize the problem of the United States supplying Israel with the weaponry, sophisticated military weaponry, to bomb and kill and destroy an entire people in Gaza,” Peters said. “But, as many people say, 'What can you do? I need a job, I go to work. I try not to worry too much about what I'm doing.'”

Connecticut’s big three defense manufacturers, Electric Boat, RTX and Lockheed Martin, consistently rank among the top 20 employers for UConn graduates. For those who earned engineering degrees, the companies rank 1, 2 and 3.

At this year’s commencement ceremonies, UConn graduate students heard from Daniel Fata, a 1994 graduate of UConn’s public policy school. Fata worked as a staffer in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, then went on to the Defense Department, where he served as a deputy assistant secretary for Europe and NATO. Fata later worked as a vice president at Lockheed Martin, and he now consults on national security, government relations, strategic risk, foreign policy, aerospace and defense, the industrial base supply chain and other issues.

“All of what I've learned and have been able to witness is because of what started here at UConn 34 years ago,” he said. Among the advice Fata dispensed to the graduating class gathered that morning at Gampel Pavilion: “Be engaged. Don't just settle, don't just watch. Use your voice. Try and make a difference.”

Fata’s four years at UConn in the early 1990s were marked by the first Gulf War, the fall of the Soviet Union and the expansion of the NATO alliance. “Historic differences were once again being allowed to fester and boil over. It was a world I wanted to be part of, and try my best to make it as safe, peaceful, fair and democratic as possible."

Today, he said, he sees parallels.

“There is once again a call to action to try to establish some form of order. It requires us to come together rather than be distant and isolated from each other.”