Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Protesters interrupt Chancellor Reyes’ inauguration, calling for divestment

During Chancellor Reyes’ formal inauguration, students and faculty protested outside of the Mullins Center
Story Young

Kalina Kornacki and Alexandra Rowe contributed to coverage of the protest

Chancellor Javier Reyes was formally inaugurated on April 26 during a ceremony held inside the Mullins Center. Both inside and outside the arena, the ceremony was interrupted by a coalition of students, faculty and alumni calling for the University’s divestment from Raytheon Technologies (also known as RTX).

Student and faculty protestors were scattered amongst the crowd of around 300 attendees, while a similar number of protestors gathered outside, chanting, reading poetry, painting banners and chalking messages such as “Stop funding genocide,” across the pavement.

Reyes’ inauguration came two days after advocacy group Palestine Legal announced a federal investigation against the University of Massachusetts for a “hostile anti-Palestinian environment.”

Organizers emphasized their demands for the University to divest in their partnership with Raytheon, a multinational military defense and aerospace corporation, and drop the disciplinary sanctions for the 57 protestors arrested in October for occupying the Whitmore administration building in protest of the University’s investment in war profiteering companies.

Inside the Mullins Center

Marty Meehan, president of the UMass system, was the first to speak at the inauguration, complementing Reyes on his first year in office and UMass’ $820 million in sponsored research.

Andrew Venditti

Under the dim red lighting, the first group of student protestors interrupted Meehan with call-and-response chants and were asked to leave by security. Physics graduate student Mark Murdy said an audience member heckled him on the way out, telling him it’s “time to grow up.” As the first round of protestors exited the building, they were greeted outside by loud chants and cheers from supporters.

“I’m a physics major, so I don’t directly get funding from the department of defense, but eventually … I’m going to have to make choices about what I want to do,” Murdy said. “Raytheon is the 6th biggest employer out of UMass. So, do I want to work for a defense contractor? Do I want to invest all of my education in killing babies overseas? Or do I want to move UMass in a direction where we have options? Where we could do things like fix the climate crisis?”

In 2022, Raytheon was ranked 11th in top employers for Isenberg School of Management graduates. RTX was among the top ten employers for the UMass Amherst undergraduate class of 2023.

“The first step in being revolutionary is listening to your student body,” protest organizer and junior sociology major Arsema Kifle said. “This is a humanitarian crisis…this is a genocide and we need to be honest about the ways our University is complicit in what is directly happening to the Palestinan people.” Kifle explained her disapproval with Raytheon’s recruiting presence on campus, due to the corporate giant’s ability to out-compete more sustainable companies. A protest organizer who chose to remain anonymous emphasized Kifle’s points and said, “They are forcing us to rely on war profiteers. They are forcing us to rely on working towards death instead of working towards life.”

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey spoke after Meehan. “This University is profoundly important,” she said. “We are Massachusetts. The first and best in education . . . And as our flagship public research university, UMass Amherst is at the heart of this learning landscape.”

While Healey spoke, protestors chanted “free, free Palestine” and “entire family trees have fallen,” then left the building as directed by UMass Police.

Congressman Jim McGovern praised Reyes for his commitment to UMass during “a time when this country is facing a crisis of confidence.”

McGovern said he was inspired by the students partaking in demonstrations on campus. “Because anyone that is brave enough to step up and debate ideas ought to be treated with dignity and respect,” McGovern said.

Protestors who were still in the room did not chant during McGovern’s speech.

As Meehan gave Reyes the Chancellor’s Regalia, a silver chain signifying the formal investiture of the role, two rows of faculty, dressed in full academic regalia with “We love the UMass 57” stickers peppering their blue caps, stood up, unfurled a banner which read “Divest from war profiteers; drop the charges” and left the building.

Cedric de Leon, professor of sociology and labor studies and spokesperson for the faculty contingent, said, “We walked right in front of everybody…and then we walked back through the entire audience, chanting.”

De Leon explained that the coalition of faculty who walked out came from a variety of organizations, including Faculty for Justice in Palestine, Massachusetts Society of Professors, as well as “many concerned faculty who are just not happy with what is going on here.”

“This is not some sort of little group of friends who decided to go to a protest together. There are a lot of faculty efforts to support the students and to support the campaign to divest,” he explained, “we are part of a national and international struggle.”

“It’s personal for me,” de Leon said. “Three of my students were arrested and given the highest possible sanction the University could give, short of suspension and expulsion … As an educator it’s my responsibility to stand up for them and support them.”

After faculty departed, Reyes began his speech, and chants calling for divestment began again. A larger group of approximately 20 students stood and left, escorted by police.

Shelly Perdomo-Ahmed, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life, took to the podium and said while UMass supports free speech, and she understands the group’s “deep commitment to global challenges,” she denounced “disruptive behaviors that violate the rights of others in attendance of this incredibly important program.”

Andrew Venditti

Reyes choked up while talking about his upbringing and described how his parents exposed him to English at a young age. “Saturday morning cartoons were a big thing in our house. I still watch those cartoons.”

“Our university must be a place where challenging ideas are explored, and diverse perspectives are welcome.” Reyes continued, “while we may not always agree, the power of persuasion lies not in being the loudest and most disruptive, but in making the strongest case through civil dialogue, grounded in facts, logic and reason.”

Bernie Morzuch said he liked Reyes’ speech and that it “gave people the opportunity to see what this guy is. He’s phenomenal.” The recently retired resource economics professor taught at UMass for 47 years.

Comparing the current protests to those he saw unfold at UMass during the Vietnam War, Morzuch said he is a “product of” that time period, and thinks “people have the right [to protest].”

Outside the Mullins Center

As protestors and faculty stepped out from auditorium, they were greeted by cheers and chants. Cars could be heard honking in support as they passed and an isolated few slung jeers and insults towards the crowd.

Murdy, a member of the Graduate Employee Organization’s (GEO) Palestine Solidarity Caucus who was amongst the crowd, said that graduate student involvement is important because “Positive change always comes from the bottom. If we don’t do it, no one will.”

Fellow graduate student and GEO member Hannah Ku said that labor issues and the Free Palestine movement are “intertwined” and “inextricable,” and noted that GEO has been asking for divestment since 2016. “We have a Palestine solidarity caucus that is committed to doing the work … in coalition with other organizations on campus,” she continued, “… their fight is our fight.”

Kalina Kornacki

The University’s partnership with Raytheon began in 1980, but De Leon said that Reyes “also bears responsibility.” According to de Leon, if Reyes wanted to, he could drop the sanctions against the arrested students and make a divestment recommendation to the Board of Trustees. “His hands are not tied. He can do those things.”

Manny Eduardo, a 60-year old UMass sociology alum of 2016, said he doesn’t understand how Reyes, as a fellow Latino understanding the oppressions within his community, could be “oblivious” to the harms of investments in war-profiteers and arrests. He said Reyes is not appropriately showing up for “the human part of the students” or UMass community.

While a student, Eduardo participated in the Divest UMass movement of 2015-2016, which succeeded in negotiating an agreement with UMass to be the first university in the nation to fully divest from fossil fuels.

“We are the ones who make the University,” he said.

The protest also drew community supporters from bordering towns and the Five Colleges, like Northampton resident Jennifer Scarlott, who said “the campus activism all across the United States is crucially important. We are being led by the young.”

Crashing the Student Farmers Market

After the inauguration concluded, the protestors marched into the bustling UMass Student Farmer’s Market, taking over the Goodell Lawn. Some of the vendors showed enthusiasm for the student demonstration, several of whom were recruiting for climate divestment projects or themselves selling protest-inspired wares to raise money for organizations and crowdfunds supporting Palestinians.

Kalina Kornacki

Sadie Ross, a sophomore natural resource conservation major with a concentration in forest ecology, tables for Sunrise UMass at the farmer’s market weekly. A member of UMass SJP, she said that “all of these issues are connected, as most of us know.” Ross continued, “I’m glad that this protest is going on, especially at a public place where we have a kind of a population of students that are all interested in social justice in some way.”

Deeksha Kavalapara, a sophomore biochemistry and molecular biology major, said, “I think it’s important that we raise awareness on different current issues that happen, and I feel like environmental issues are very connected with social justice issues around the world, so you can’t have one without the other.”

The protest ended around 1 p.m.

Reyes’ letter to several student advocacy groups
On Thursday, April 25 — the same day of Palestine Legal’s federal investigation announcement — Chancellor Reyes published a letter addressed to​​ the UMass Dissenters, SJP, FJP and the Prison Abolition Collective rejecting the coalition’s demands and denouncing the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement (BDS). The letter stressed neutrality and did not comment on Palestine or UMass’ connection to the arming of Israel’s military that has left no university standing in Gaza.

The letter stated that the University will remain “content-neutral on which companies may join career fairs or host informational recruiting sessions so long as they meet our non-discrimination and recruiting guidelines.”

“You shared that you wish to increase the number of employers visiting campus dedicated to a demilitarized and sustainable future. If there are specific employers you would like to build engagement with at the university, please let us know so that we can connect with them and share information about on-campus recruiting,” the letter also stated.

In a comment to the Collegian, University spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski stated that UMass supports the right of its community to exercise free speech “under the university’s founding values and the protections provided to them under the First Amendment.”

“As shared with demonstrators during today’s ceremony, free speech rights do not extend to disruptive behavior that conflicts with the rights of others in attendance to take part in the program, whether as speakers or guests. The demonstrators were asked to leave and did so peacefully.”

In honor of Founder’s Day on Monday, a number of activities and events will be held across campus highlighting various aspects of the University and further celebrating Reyes’ inauguration.

Story Young can be reached at [email protected], Andrew Venditti can be reached out at [email protected], Grace Lee can be reached out at [email protected] and Daniel Frank can be reached out at [email protected].

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