Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

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

Letter: When our leaders fail us

Anatomy of a faculty member’s no confidence vote in Chancellor Reyes
Kalina Kornacki

On Monday, May 20, an emergency general meeting of the University of Massachusetts faculty and librarians approved a motion of no confidence in Chancellor Javier Reyes, for his handling of the May 7 pro-Palestine student encampment on the Student Union South Lawn. I was one of the 473 who voted in favor of that motion.

The arguments presented at the meeting in support of the no confidence vote focused largely on the events of May 7 itself: the unprecedented summoning of a militarized police force to dismantle a nonviolent protest on campus, along with the ensuing police violence and ill-treatment of some arrestees, which left numerous students bruised and one in need of a visit to the emergency room. I was present throughout the events of the encampment and can attest to the veracity of the reports above, including the arbitrary and violent arrest of a UMass student video journalist, which I witnessed first-hand.

I agree that these arguments are sufficient to warrant a no confidence vote on Chancellor Reyes. For what precedent would we be setting otherwise, if we accepted violent police repression as the remedy for peaceful demonstration and civil disobedience on campus?  This month, we had scores of militarized local and state police march onto several hundred nonviolent protesters.  What will Reyes do when we have several thousand demonstrators instead?  Will he summon the National Guard?  Are we going to be the next Kent State?

My own vote of no confidence, however, had a deeper, and more fundamental root: the urgent need to stop the United States-supported Israeli genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

In my view, it is impossible to properly frame Reyes’ true shortcomings as a leader at UMass outside of this context. I don’t say this lightly, as I am a man of peace and conciliation and it may cost me dearly to state my position so plainly, but I have found his handling of campus dissent around the Israel-Palestine crisis, since early October 2023, to be consistently autocratic, disingenuous and not conducive to what is most necessary, a true, healing dialogue.

At the heart of the matter is his implicit support for the Israeli war campaign in Gaza and the U.S. involvement in, and profiting from, those efforts.  In his email to the UMass community October 10, 2023, Reyes vehemently condemned the Hamas October 7 attacks and described them as acts of terror; but in the seven ensuing months, he has issued no corresponding judgment on the vastly superior terror unleashed on Gaza by Israel, despite the highest court of international justice having ruled Israel’s conduct of war to be plausibly genocidal. We are asked to read into this silent asymmetry in the Chancellor’s arguments that the Palestinians in Gaza deserve what they are getting. I refuse to accept that – and so have the students protesting this – on ethical as well as legal grounds, given that our nation’s position on the Israel-Palestine war (and Reyes’ in tow) are in violation of federal and international law, including the Foreign Assistance Act, the Arms Export Control Act, the U.S. War Crimes Act, the Leahy law protecting human rights and the Genocide Convention Implementation Act.

Understanding the centrality of the Gaza question clarifies Reyes’ befuddlement as to why the students raised the encampment again on May 7, when only the week before they had “amicably” agreed to tear it down. The amicable atmosphere the Chancellor is referring to included the threat of arrest of the students if they refused his order to dismantle the encampment, while police forces were held ready on call.  But more importantly, May 7 was the day when Israeli forces finally launched their controversial, and anticipatedly catastrophic, ground invasion of Rafah – the last “safe zone” in the Gaza strip, densely populated with hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees.  Had Reyes visited the encampment and engaged in open dialogue with the students that day, he would have readily found that out and realized the extreme urgency of rightful action the students were feeling. Instead, he chose to call a handful of students and one faculty supporter to his office to request an unconditional dismantlement of the encampment, at the same time that dozens of state troopers were amassing on campus.

The negotiation process that day also highlighted a pattern of obfuscation and shirking of responsibility in Reyes’ engagement with conflictive situations on campus.  On May 7, the Chancellor’s primary stated reason for ordering the arrest of the encamped students was their violation of the UMass Land-Use Policy.  What are we to make of the fact, however, that similar tented encampments in the past at UMass, such as the 2023 protest around housing issues, faced no such accusation by the UMass administration and led to no arrests? Similarly, when asked to consider lifting the unprecedented onerous sanctions meted out to some of the 55 UMass students arrested in October 2023 for their pro-Palestine sit-in at the Whitmore Administration Building, the Chancellor claimed his hands were tied by the by-laws of the Student Code of Conduct. A quick flip through its statutes, however, reveals in Section 5.4.3 that the Chancellor does indeed have the authority and discretion to override sanctions dictated by administrators of lower rank than himself, if deemed necessary for the “well-being of the campus community.” I expect more from our leaders than to just blindly follow the strict letter of the law; there would be no need for Solomons in the world, otherwise.

I have also witnessed the Chancellor misrepresenting the student protesters in his university-wide communications. During the open Q&A session at the May 14 Faculty Senate meeting, Reyes said that the student negotiators on May 7 had “rejected” a proposal to bring the question of divestment from defense-related firms to the Board of Trustees meeting in June. The faculty member who was present during those negotiations, however, reports that the students approved of the proposal and inquired about ways for them to meaningfully participate in that meeting, and whether Reyes would publicly advocate for that divestment. The omission of these details is disingenuous and reflects a poverty of courage and intellectual fiber, amounting to a base ad hominem attack on those the Chancellor disagrees with. A similar dynamic was also evident at the same May 14 Faculty Senate meeting, when the Chancellor listed the discovery by the UMass Police Department that there was “a pile of rocks” at the encampment site as one of the reasons for summoning a heavy police force –  a baseless maligning of the peaceful protesters’ intentions, given their consistently nonviolent tactics since last October and evidenced by the lack of a single rock flying during the six hours of arrests on May 7.

In brief, Reyes’ first academic year in office has shown us a leader adopting a morally reprehensible and unlawful position around the ongoing genocide in Gaza, lacking the courage to openly admit his position (let alone choosing a different path), gaslighting and punishing those who disagree with him and hiding the true intent of his repression of student protest – the silencing of pro-Palestinian voices – behind a façade of dutiful adherence to the letter of the law.

Is this the type of leadership we need during these unprecedented times?

Are we conscious of the irony of violently arresting students – who are peaceably protesting a genocide – based on a land-use violation dictated by an institution, and nation, built on unceded land, following the genocide of its indigenous people?

And are we aware of the arc that connects these points to an increasingly hijacked future, as the fear and greed that runs our industrialized societies wages war on the environment and the planet’s life-support systems, bringing genocide to the very land itself?

This generation has tremendous and urgent global challenges to face. We are doing them a disservice if the leaders we offer to inspire and work with them are unimaginative autocrats, afraid to rock a patently disastrous status quo.

So, please, let’s find ourselves some leaders rooted in openness, integrity, courage, creativity and a commitment to the unity of all humankind, all living beings and Creation itself.

Reyes: please finally show us that you are up to this task, or kindly let another person try.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Massachusetts Daily Collegian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *