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Faculty Senate calls for an external review of May 4 clearing of encampment

University administrators also attended the Senate meeting, answering questions about their decisions on and leading up to May 4

<p>The Senate meeting centered on the events of May 4, when police forcibly cleared a pro-Palestine encampment near the University chapel.</p>

The Senate meeting centered on the events of May 4, when police forcibly cleared a pro-Palestine encampment near the University chapel.

The University’s Faculty Senate passed a motion at a meeting May 10 to call for a University-wide external review of the events on and leading up to May 4, when police forcibly cleared a pro-Palestine encampment outside the University Chapel. University President Jim Ryan and other administrators attended the meeting, where they answered questions from Senators, including questions regarding their decision to authorize the use of police force at the encampment. The Senate also discussed various senator-proposed motions regarding the events that transpired.

The Senate Executive Council first passed the motion to establish an external review of the encampment clearing at their meeting Thursday, and the full Senate subsequently passed an amended version at its meeting Friday. The final version of the motion states that the results of the review should be made public. It also says that University policies should be changed — both to identify under what circumstances the University will employ state police, as well as to hold the University accountable for the creation of transparent policies that protect free speech and safety.

The motion and the Senate meeting more broadly centered on the events of May 4, when police forcibly cleared a pro-Palestine encampment near the University chapel known as the “Liberated Zone 4 Gaza.” Protestors at the encampment called on the University to disclose its investment portfolio and “no longer invest its endowment in institutions materially supporting or profiting from Israel’s genocide, apartheid and occupation of Palestine,” among other demands. 

When the encampment first appeared, Timothy Longo, chief of the University Police Department and associate vice president for security and safety, said that the encampment could continue if it did not become disruptive and abided by University policies, which ban the use of megaphones and the erection of tents without permits. Tensions rose when some protesters began to put up tents the evening of May 3, with some claiming that a clause in a tent regulations document on the Office of Environmental Health and Safety’s website exempted recreational tents from permit requirements.

After multiple warnings from Longo, Virginia State Police forcibly cleared the encampment using riot shields and pepper spray, arresting 27 protesters.

The original motion presented to the Senate was proposed by Senator Jeri Seidman, associate professor of Commerce and at-large member of the Senate’s executive council, and Brian Wright, associate professor of Data Science and co-chair of the Senate’s academic affairs committee. Among other things, the motion stated that the Senate would condemn the use of asymmetrical force against members of the University community. 

However, Senators ultimately voted to remove language in the original motion that stated that actions perpetrated against members of the University community May 4 violated shared University space and undermined trust in the University and shared governance. The senator who proposed the amendment said that the change was intended to ensure the motion would not prejudge the outcome of the investigation. 

Michael Kennedy, Faculty Senate chair and education professor, called on Senators to exercise compassion for each other as they asked their questions and take into account the complexity of the events that occurred May 4. 

“Everyone here is not only human, but has families,” Kennedy said. “We make mistakes, we have triumphs, we have sadness, and we all love the University.”

Many faculty, though, have already been forceful in their condemnation of the steps University administrators took May 4 to clear the encampment. Following the administration's decisions to use state police to disperse the demonstrators, several groups of faculty from different departments at the University released statements criticizing the decision, including the members of the Corcoran Department of History and the English department. 

Oludamini Ogunnaike, associate professor of African Religious Thought and Democracy, resigned from the University's Task Force on Religious Diversity and Belonging after the events of May 4. In his letter of resignation, Ogunnaike wrote that the University’s actions Saturday went against the task force’s mission.

“How could I recommend ways to make Muslim and Jewish students, faculty and staff feel more welcome on Grounds to an administration that sent in heavily-armed riot police to point guns at, threaten, pepper spray, manhandle, arrest and ban from Grounds a small handful of Muslim, Jewish and other students, faculty and staff — many of whom were not even part of the encampment,” Ogunnaike wrote.

At the Senate meeting, Senator and Anthropology Prof. Eve Danziger asked Ryan if fear of being terminated from his position for not cracking down enough on protesters played into his decision to call state troopers. She also asked Ryan whether he believes that the subsequent loss of faculty support could lead to the installation of a new president.

“Fear of losing my job is the last thing that motivated my decisions,” Ryan said. “I would never do anything just to keep my job. I'm not interested in keeping my job for the sake of keeping my job. I'm interested in doing what I think is in the best interest of U.Va.”

Some Senators sympathized with both the administration and the individuals involved with protests and called on faculty members to use this as a time to come together as a community and recognize that everyone is capable of making mistakes.

“If we have the spirit of trying to be honest about the errors, and transparent, which our leadership have, then I believe forgiveness is exactly what we should be given,” Charlotte Matthews, senator and associate interdisciplinary studies professor, said.

Other Senators said they felt that the administration needed to take further accountability for its decisions and asked additional follow up questions. Matt Hedstrom, senator and associate professor of religious studies, called on the administration to rescind the no trespass orders issued against protestors, which police gave those whom they detained after removing them from the encampment. 

These orders barred several students and faculty members from Grounds and denied the students access to their living spaces and the ability to take final exams. In his comment, Hedstrom asked Ryan and his colleagues to recognize that faculty members were acting to support students rather than with malice.

“I regard it not just as wrong, but as an insult to [faculty arrested at the encampment] and their professionalism, that now they have been told ‘stay away,’ as if they are ongoing threats to this community, when they were the ones precisely representing this University with care for our students,” Hedstrom said. “I would ask you to recognize that.”

Longo shared in a town hall led by members of University administration Tuesday that he modified the NTOs issued to only some of the student protestors to allow them to stay in their on-Grounds housing and complete any academic obligations for the rest of the spring semester. However, Longo said that after any academic obligations end, those NTOs will come back into effect until the fall semester begins. 

Jennifer Wagner Davis, chief operating officer and executive vice president, did not commit to removing NTOs for faculty members at the administration’s Tuesday town hall. 

“We made multiple efforts to ask people to leave the scene, we did issue NTOs and those NTOs have been modified to a degree,” Wagner said. “We are trying to strike the right balance in terms of allowing the faculty to do … but also respecting the fact that there [were] … multiple violations [and] repeated efforts to ask people to leave the location safely, and they chose not to.”

Other Senators had questions about the lack of direct communication between University administrators and the students and faculty protesting at the encampment. Katia Dianina, senator and associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures asked why no senior administrators were present at the site of the encampment to mediate with protesters when the removal was happening. 

Ryan said he believed his presence at the encampment would do more harm than good, and had he been there, law enforcement officers would have had to focus on his safety in addition to monitoring the situation at large. According to Longo, administrators and law enforcement officials made decisions May 4 at a unified command post. 

Ryan said that he remained in this command center to help make decisions on what actions to take regarding the protest throughout the day. Ryan also said that it was clear that protestors did not want to talk to administrators, although the administration had made multiple attempts to engage with them throughout the week.

“I am not afraid to engage students, I engage them all year,” Ryan said. “And I need to pay attention to the circumstances at the time about what's safest for the entire situation.”

Earlier in the week, the University administration presented protesters with a written response to their list of demands, which they had previously posted on the door of the Rotunda. An Instagram account affiliated with the encampment subsequently posted a photo of a printed copy of the University’s response with the word “bulls--t” written over it.

Dianina also asked what orders University administrators gave to law enforcement officers to clear the encampment. Longo said that after multiple attempts to negotiate with the protesters, members of administration at the command center decided to bring in the Virginia State Police tactical force, who he said are equipped and trained to disperse crowds.

Additionally, faculty members expressed concerns about the right to protest on Grounds following the encampment clearing. Gustav Heldt, senator and professor of Japanese Literature, asked how University and community members could protest at all going forward given the University’s forced shutdown of the encampment protest. Baucom said that protest is essential to the University. He also said that in the days following the incident, two pro-Palestine protest events occurred that were allowed to continue. 

“Protest is fundamental to the life of the University,” Baucom said. “Many, many colleagues believe the decision that we made was a decision to say that we will not tolerate protest and I know that, and I accept the moral and ethical and principled weight of factors. We believe in protest.”

Another Senator asked why the decision to use the University alert system was made, stating that it seemed to exacerbate the situation by drawing more onlookers to the protest. The system sent multiple alerts over the course of the day through emails and text messages, warning recipients to avoid the Rotunda and Chapel areas. While text alerts described “police activity” in the area from about 12:15 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., alerts from about 2:45 p.m. onward stated that an unlawful assembly had been declared.

Ryan said that administrators made the decision to make the alerts in order to ensure that members of the University community were aware of the situation in case they found themselves in the area. Ryan said that if the University had not issued the alerts and someone were to have come across the scene of the encampment and gotten injured, administrators would be criticized for not having sent out alerts.  

The Senate will reconvene in the Fall 2024 semester. 


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