c/o Students for Justice in Palestine

c/o Students for Justice in Palestine

After three weeks, over 100 tents, and more than 1,000 participants, Wesleyan Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the University reached a series of agreements, resulting in the dismantling of the encampment on Sunday, May 19. The agreement marks one of the largest divestment commitments on behalf of the University administration since student demands to divest from businesses supporting the South African apartheid regime in 1990 and President Michael Roth ’78’s agreement to divest from fossil fuels in 2020.

“I think that it is a first step that brings us close to this ultimate goal that we have with divestment,” SJP organizer Rowan Roudebush ’27 said. “We’ve seen that there’s been seven, almost eight months of horrifying slaughter in Palestine…and with this first step, I think it is a demonstration of a mass mobilization of students.”

Life at the Encampment 

The SJP Wesleyan Palestine Solidarity Encampment (SJP-WPSE) was established on Sunday, April 28, following a number of other similar protests on college campuses across the nation.

“SJP-WPSE are motivated by their understanding that the world is currently witnessing a genocide in Gaza that is part of Israel’s ongoing settler colonial regime of occupation and Apartheid,” SJP’s published statement reads.

While the encampment began on the green between North College and Andrus Field, the tent area had reached Zelnick Pavilion and occupied the area in front of the Andrus Field baseball fence by the time of decampment. According to SJP organizers, the immense outpour of support from students, alumni, and faculty was critical to its existence and expansion.

“We organize with not only other students but also community members that we couldn’t do this without,” Roudebush said. “And it’s really beautiful, the way that people have come together in really powerful ways and for this because they also see it as a part of their own liberation…Palestinian freedom and injustice is as widespread beyond our campus. ”

While it stood, the encampment created a community of like-minded students who gathered to study, eat, and perform their day-to-day tasks around the tents. By nightfall, the tents were aglow with string lights, and the air was filled with strumming guitars and lively conversation.

“It was definitely an energizing space to be in,” SJP student organizer Liam Dorrien ’27 said. “I was very glad to just share solidarity with all of the students around me who are committed to the cause of ending the genocide in Gaza and conceding genocide in Palestine…. It makes you feel like a part of a much larger movement.”

Since the initial unveiling, hundreds of students, faculty, and staff have participated in encampment community programming, including rallies, teach-ins, interfaith prayers, workshops, and performances. Notable events included a rally on behalf of the Wesleyan Faculty for Justice in Palestine (FJP), several open mics and Q&As, and the Falasteen Fling, a benefit event for the encampment that took place on Sunday, May 12.

“I offered five different sessions at the encampment: Settler Colonialism 101; BDS 101: Boycott Divestment, Sanctions; Academic Boycott; Hawai’i and Palestine in Comparative Perspective; and Colonialism, Occupation, Apartheid: what the difference is and why it matters,” Professor of American Studies and Anthropology J. Kēhaulani Kauanui wrote in an email to The Argus. “All of them drew a lively group of participants and offered a space for individuals to learn about distinct social and legal formations – notably grounded in international law.”

The encampment, however, was in violation of certain University Disruptions Policies.

“Wesleyan’s policy on Disruptions indicates that those establishing symbolic structures (e.g. an encampment) should seek permission in advance from the Dean of Students office – this gives both sides a chance to work through time, place and manner guidelines that make sense,” Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Whaley wrote in an email to The Argus.  “Since the SJP/WPSE did not get approval in advance, this was a violation of our standing policy…. Again, providing as much room for student expression as possible while guarding against disruption was key from my perspective.”

After negotiations with the administration, student organizers and protestors agreed to take down the tents and clear the encampment space by the morning of Monday, May 20.

“I’m really proud of the over 100 [students] that uprooted their lives to participate in this first step,” SJP organizer Luné Maldonado ’27 said. “They are really exercising their right to get the administration to do something, to acknowledge us.”

c/o Students for Justice in Palestine

c/o Students for Justice in Palestine

Decampment

The “All Out for Palestine” rally on Sunday, May 19 marked the last time the SJP-WPSE community gathered before the agreed-upon decampment process. Attitudes were mixed as encampment members packed up and removed their property from the area.

“It was in some ways a celebration, because we’ve shown that we can mobilize so many people and get administration to do the things we need them to do for Palestinians in Gaza,” Roudebush said, “Whereas at the beginning of the year, they showed no interest in our demands, you know, just entirely rejected our proposals.”

Many students saw the encampment as a space to grieve and engage in an open discussion about Palestinian struggle, and its removal eliminated an integral way for students to come to terms with current events. 

“It was sad because it was a representative space where we didn’t have to pretend that things were okay,” Roudebush said. “We could reject this idea that we have to be normal while we’re seeing these images of Palestinians being slaughtered.”

Folding chairs, tables, bookstands, blankets, lights, and other student property were taken away in students’ arms, cars, and in pickup trucks, accompanied by loud music and what Maldonado saw as bittersweet sentiments. While all SJP members applauded the work of student negotiators and protestors in the work toward University divestment, some see the administration’s actions as insufficient, and the packing up of the encampment as a sad end to the three weeks. 

“In terms of what we wanted to see as a quote, unquote, win, it’s not our call to decide really what looks like a winning base,” Maldonado said. “We’ve gotten pretty close in terms of the first win in a series of wins.”

Demands and Negotiations

Accompanying the establishment of the encampment on Sunday, April 28 was a list of demands on behalf of SJP, including University divestment and transparency regarding current investments, a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, and amnesty for students and faculty who participated in the protest.

“Our first step is a demonstration of a mass mobilization of students,” Maldonado said. “We know that we have power, and it is undeniable that [we] will eventually get the administration to…listen to us.”

SJP’s principal demand, as outlined in their published statement and in the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) Referendum on Divestment and Disclosure, is complete divestment from companies and institutions that provide weaponry, training, security systems, prisons, and/or other military support to the Israeli government. Additionally, SJP outlined means to achieve full transparency of the University’s investment portfolio.

“SJP-WPSE…believes that the apartheid, genocide, ethnic cleansing, military occupation, and illegal human rights violations unfolding across occupied Palestine are against Wesleyan’s values,” the statement reads. “As such, Wesleyan should not be supporting companies or institutions that create the conditions of colonial oppression.”

The subsequent demands include an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions and affiliated programs, such as the Wes-at-Shimron Archaeological Field School and other study abroad programming, as well as amnesty for anyone engaging in protest.

At the end of the statement, SJP listed companies, which were gathered from a document created by the American Friends Service Committee, as targets for divestment. These include weapons manufacturers such as Boeing, General Electric, and Lockheed Martin, other U.S. companies including Chevron, Valero, and Caterpillar, and Israeli banks, energy companies, and technology companies. 

Negotiations with the University began on Wednesday, May 8, shortly after SJP-WPSE issued their demands and emailed them to administration members, including Provost and Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Nicole Stanton and Whaley.

“We basically sent over a list, and soon after they came up to us with people we could meet with,” SJP organizer Uday Narayanan ’24 said. “That started off a chain of logistics that led to negotiations.”

In the room during negotiations were Stanton, Whaley, Deputy Chief Investment Officer Jonathan Farrar, three students including Narayanan, two other faculty members, and a moderator. Negotiators worked toward obtaining disclosure of investment in aerospace and defense and Israeli companies, implementing a formalized and regular method of disclosure, and discussing an academic boycott. 

“This process is just getting started,” Narayanan said. “I don’t want to say there was dissatisfaction, but we are looking toward the University meeting more of our demands…we didn’t get everything from the get-go.”

Narayanan found that perspectives varied on whether students were content with the administration’s communication. Although versions of the agreement were drafted in the room, some details were left out, and negotiators would find a few days later that certain integral words were changed. 

“There was a lot of change in language…from what we’d agreed upon in the in-person meeting,” Narayanan said. “It sometimes led to a good amount of frustration and confusion.”

Whaley felt that the discussions were largely successful.

“I think that both Provost Stanton and I felt that our discussions with the student and faculty representatives were productive and that together we forged some pathways forward in considering some important issues,” Whaley wrote in an email to The Argus. “Specifically, in discussing our community’s values and the ways in which we might more fully align with those ideals. We all operated mindful of our shared love of Wesleyan.”

The Agreement

The agreement was shared with the University community on Saturday, May 18 in a campus-wide email from President Roth and via an SJP Instagram post.

The document is composed of five parts: a disclosure of Wesleyan’s current investment portfolio, a formal statement from the Wesleyan Investments Office, and sections on academic and career-center partnerships, amnesty and decampment, and additional initiatives.

The first demand addressed was investment disclosure. The University attested that, as of December 31, 2023, 1.7% of its endowment was invested in companies categorized as Aerospace & Defense businesses as defined by Global Industry Classification (GIC) codes; the University claims that these businesses are parts suppliers with broader commercial and aerospace applications, and are not directly involved in weapons manufacturing. Additionally, 0.4% of the endowment is invested in companies in Israel, all of which are software companies.

When pursuing new partnerships, the Wesleyan Investments Office’s policy is to continue considering environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues in every investment memo, as well as to adhere to its Socially Responsible Investment policy passed by the Board of Trustees in 2015.

“We incorporate an ESG section in every investment memo to raise potential issues…that may merit additional discussion and consideration by the Investment Committee prior to approving new partnerships,” Farrar said. “The Investments Office incorporates the Socially Responsible Investment policy in its daily activity of monitoring existing investments and pursuing new partnerships. This policy helps filter out potential investment partnerships while also informing some of the topics we engage our investment partners on.”

The second demand was for complete transparency of University investment through public availability of the University’s comprehensive investment portfolio. This included a demanded that the confidential manager system be removed in favor of a new system that allows for greater transparency. 

The Office of Investments does not see this demand of full disclosure being met in the near future, but will work with the Committee for Investor Responsibility (CIR) and meet students partway.

‘We are bound by confidentiality agreements with our investment partners from disclosing certain information, including their underlying investments,” wrote Farrar. “There is no plan to disclose the entirety of Wesleyan’s investment portfolio, but we are committed to working with the CIR to help the committee perform its duties.”

The administration also promised to discuss study abroad programs and University academic and career-service partnerships in Fall 2024 through the formation of an ad-hoc committee. The Tel Shimron archaeological field school, pre-approved academic partnerships with universities in Israel, and any existing career services programs that invite recruiters from industries tied to the military-industrial complex will be areas of discussion. 

The ad-hoc committee (AHC) will convene in September 2024, and will comprise of three faculty representatives nominated by the Educational Policy Committee (EPC), three staff members nominated by the Office of Student Affairs, and three students nominated by the WSA. The chair of the committee and its meeting schedule will be determined internally by the AHC, with the expectation that it will have concrete policy recommendations for the EPC and Gordon Career Center (GCC) by January 2025.

The EPC will then take these recommendations to the faculty for consultation, and will hold a formal vote by the end of the Spring 2025 semester. Similarly, the GCC will review and implement resulting policy changes by the same Spring 2025 deadline.

No one from the protest ever contacted the GCC directly, but we are confident that we have no existing recruiting relationships with companies they would target for divestment,” GCC Executive Director Sharon Belden Castonguay wrote in an email to The Argus.

The agreement continues, listing a number of initiatives focused on campus community response at large, including utilizing the University’s existing “Scholar at Risk” program to bring displaced Palestinian scholars to campus. Additionally, the Office of Academic Affairs will review the University’s Middle Eastern Studies minor during the 2024–25 academic year, and the College of the Environment will explore a collaboration with the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library. Other non-academic initiatives will bring Palestinian artists to campus. 

Wesleyan Faculty for Justice in Palestine (FJP) see the planned review of the Middle Eastern Studies Minor as a wonderful opportunity to strengthen Wesleyan’s capacity to facilitate the study of Palestine and the wider Middle East and North Africa, their diasporas, and the myriad issues that fall within the contemporary purview of Middle East and North African Studies,” the Wesleyan FJP wrote in a statement to the Argus. 

Kauanui has already incorporated Palestinian studies in her courses, offering sessions outside of regularly scheduled class times around the “no-state solution” of Israel and Palestine. She also utilizes Palestine as a case study in her senior research seminar “LANDBACK! Indigenous Sovereignty Politics” (AMST 307). She hopes that these practices will extend beyond her own courses. 

“Faculty can work to include a focus on Palestine in courses that examine systematic oppression, settler colonial domination, and other forms structural violence—including legal regimes that facilitate mass incarceration, torture, and dispossession,” Kaunanui wrote.

The Office of Residential Life promises to assess student interest in the re-establishment of the Turath program house, which previously served as the focal point of Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim cultural and religious activities on campus. If there is enough interest, ResLife will initiate a relaunch of the house by Fall 2025.

“The University as a whole invites all units to consider additional collaborations with Palestinian institutions,” the agreement reads.

Lastly, the University will grant amnesty to students who were in the immediate encampment area, and there will be no formal judicial charges related to violations of the University’s policies on disruptions or chalking.

“Policy violations (including disruptions, damage/vandalism, harassment, etc.) occurring in the encampment area after the clearing of the encampment, or that occur elsewhere on campus, will be subject to usual disciplinary procedures,” the statement reads.

It is still unclear if the University plans on pursuing disciplinary action for the pro-Palestine graffitiing of Olin Memorial Library and Denison Terrace, or whether this agreement solely covers disruptions on or around Usdan University Center and the Center for the Arts.

Reception

Within the email, Roth declared that the administration had “meaningful engagement” with pro-Palestinian protestors, and ultimately hopes to create a safe environment for students to disagree with one another and to learn from opposing viewpoints. The agreement was met with largely positive reviews from the student body, but given the urgency of the situation, many students believe that the terms are not enough.

“For people who have been organizing towards that divestment, academic boycott for Palestine, it’s a historic win,” Roudebush said. “But in the context of a genocide, and this invasion of Rafah, where Palestinians are being blown up in tents, and their hospitals are being attacked by the State of Israel, urgency is at an all-time high.”

In that context, Roth’s email announcing the decampment was met with some criticism. Repeating the earlier concerns that the administration had left out or misrepresented the words of student negotiators, protestors found fault with one portion of the email which attested that they agreed to not protest during Reunion and Commencement weekend.

“The protesters agreed not to disrupt Reunion and Commencement events,” the email states. “Individuals who refuse to comply will be suspended and face legal action.”

Members of SJP are adamant that they had never made this promise during negotiations, and there is no language in the agreement preventing student protests over the weekend. 

“I think it’s something that [Roth] wanted,” Maldonado said. “And so he put it in there in the email, as he wanted to say that it was formally part of the agreement. But it’s…straight up false, right? There’s nothing in our agreement that says we’re giving up our right to protest Israel’s genocide of Palestinians.”

Many other SJP members agree.

“The way he put it was a complete mischaracterization of what he had talked about in the room,” Narayanan said.There was never something that we explicitly agreed upon in the sense of, ‘Oh, we agreed to not do anything during commencement or graduation.’ And in fact, we even got assurances from the administration that if we were to do this…we wouldn’t [face disciplinary action].”

SJP plans to continue its campaign into the summer and the coming semester, with the goals of complete University divestment from Israel-affiliated companies and organizations and academic boycott of Israeli institutions. The Board of Trustees will vote on divestment in the Fall, and this vote will be critical for the future of the University’s investment practices. 

“We’re gonna organize, organize, organize, and get full divestment by September, we’re gonna do everything in my power to get that done,” Roudebush said. “Not because we want it, but because we need to.”

Carolyn Neugarten can be reached at cneugarten@wesleyan.edu.

Rose Chen can be reached at rchen@wesleyan.edu



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