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Administrators meet with sit-in, Hillel to hear students' concerns

By Will Greenberg, Daily News Editor
and Michael Sugerman, Daily Staff Reporter
and Max Radwin , Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 22, 2014

It was a busy weekend for members of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality and all those sitting in in the Central Student Government chambers, as both administrators and CSG representatives met with the group to discuss plans to move forward.

SAFE’s efforts over the past three days culminated with a statement Sunday from Business senior Michael Proppe, CSG president, who laid out his response to each of the five "calls for accountability" from the sit-in, including an apology from Proppe personally.

The sit-in in the CSG chambers in the Michigan Union began Wednesday night in response to CSG’s indefinite postponement on a vote to divest from companies that have supported alleged human rights violations against Palestinians. While the larger goal of the movement is to use CSG’s influence to call on the University to divest from these companies, the sit-in is a response to CSG’s indefinite postponement of a vote on the proposal.

Proppe, Public Policy junior Bobby Dishell, CSG vice president, and LSA sophomore Meagan Shokar, CSG speaker of the assembly, met with the participants of the sit-in Sunday afternoon to give a statement from Proppe and discuss the current on-campus situation. In the statement, Proppe responded to all five of the calls for accountability made, reiterating his plan from last week to motion for Assembly Resolution 3-050 to be reconsidered.

In the statement, Proppe said he personally apologizes for the proposal’s indefinite postponement, and the fact that the students felt silenced with both supporters and dissenters being unable to voice their opinions. He also apologized for not helping foster a safe campus climate and expressed regret to any student who felt unsafe at the University because of their identity.

After Proppe read the statement, which at the time had not yet been made public, #UMDivest organizers and supporters offered amendments to the wording, as they were generally unhappy with the statement’s tone. Members specifically took issue with Proppe’s explanation of why CSG representatives were unavailable to attend “teach-in” sessions to learn about the divestment proposal, adding that Proppe’s assertion that members didn’t have enough time to attend was not true. They added that his apology was insufficient, as it apologized to students who were made to “feel silenced” rather than firmly acknowledging students were silenced.

Despite the criticism of the statement’s wording, members said the public statement now online is identical to the one brought to the sit-in Sunday afternoon.

“The disappointing thing isn’t even so much that he didn’t address those concerns, it was that even after we brought them up and we sat in the room with him for two hours talking he still didn’t change anything,” said LSA senior Yazan Kherallah, a SAFE member.

During Sunday’s discussion, CSG representatives and #UMDivest organizers said they have continued to receive threats and intimidating messages through various mediums. Dishell claimed that he was accosted by a SAFE member but did not present the name of the individual and SAFE leaders said none of their leadership was involved in threatening other individuals and has been proactive in removing anyone who would engage in intimidation tactics.

SAFE members also said their group members, as well as other students perceived to be Arab, have been threatened and intimidated by various individuals on campus. SAFE members said the unsafe campus environment is the result of CSG’s decision to indefinitely postpone a vote on the resolution and added that it is CSG’s responsibility to not contribute to a hateful climate.

Administrators visited the #UMDivest sit-in twice on Friday and once on Saturday night. Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones also spoke privately with University of Michigan Hillel, the largest Jewish organization on campus.

In the CSG chambers Friday, E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, listened to students’ questions in the afternoon about what the administration can do for SAFE, what influence it has over CSG and how much flexibility is available for the sit-in to remain in the Union overnight. Students repeatedly stressed that their calls for accountability are reasonable, adding that their movement has been non-violent but has not been treated as such, and that they feel disrespected and silenced. Students occupying the CSG chambers have engaged in limited acts of civil disobedience by staying in the room after the Union was scheduled to close at 2 a.m., leading to confrontations between the group and University Police. No sit-in participant has been arrested.

Additionally, SAFE representatives and other members of the sit-in claimed the administration has acted with bias throughout this process, and representatives asked for a public statement to be issued regarding the sit-in the same way the University has commented in the past with the SAFE’s mock eviction in December.

Harper returned Friday night with Blake Jones to reach an agreement with #UMDivest supporters to draft a statement in support of campus safety.

“I have been enormously impressed with the thoughtfulness, the clarity of thought, how respectful the students have been,” Harper said. “(I have) just been a little surprised that people have been talking about this as a violent movement; it’s just not the case. It has been just what you would expect from smart U of M students that are passionate about an important issue.”

Harper stressed the importance of students’ collective right to question the University’s values and added that this ability is contingent upon both administrative transparency and a generally safe atmosphere.

She said the divestment movement is not new, adding that “there is nothing odd going on.” Rather, there has been a tangible history on campus of students asking the University about where it spends its money.

Harper and Blake Jones plan to draft a statement for the administration. Harper said it will address concerns about the climate and clarify that the University is no place for threats from either side of this issue.

“The climate issues have impacted a wide range of groups of our students this week,” Blake Jones said. “Many people have been harmed and have felt fearful, and we have to address the climate issues and care about the concerns of all of our students.”

Harper said the statement will also draw attention to available University resources that can help students combat feelings of insecurity and fear, such as Counseling and Psychological Services and the Department of Public Safety.

As for letting students stay in the Union, Harper told them it is “not in your best interests to get arrested.” While students noted that previous sit-ins at the University have been allowed to continue without interruption, Harper said the policies have since changed, and students need to be cleared from the building at night for safety reasons.

Thus far, the sit-in participants have left every night at about 2 a.m. when the building closes, but have returned to the chambers the next morning.

Blake Jones and Harper met again with SAFE and the rest of the sit-in’s participants on Saturday night to facilitate a similar discussion, but details of that meeting remain private.

Blake Jones spoke to students at Hillel Friday afternoon about how the failure of the resolution to reach a vote in CSG has contributed to an increasingly charged campus climate.

She spoke privately with student leaders of Hillel about personal concerns before answering questions from all students who attended the forum. The meeting with Blake Jones was open to all students who wanted to express their concerns to the University administration about the sensitive climate on campus surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the #UMDivest movement. Another purpose of the meeting was to clarify the details of what occurred at the student government meeting for those looking to know more about the issue.

“I was here today to listen and to hear from students,” Blake Jones said. “I’ve been doing that all week. I was happy to be able to be here today.”

Blake Jones stayed for about 20 minutes, and the rest of the meeting was devoted to open discussion about how students felt about the topic. After the meeting, many students expressed feelings of frustration, as well as apprehension regarding threats some Jewish students had been receiving.

“I think that obviously there’s a lot of passions on both sides,” said LSA senior Jonathan Aseel, who attended the meeting. “People need to just remember to focus on mutual respect and give each other the opportunity to present their own opinions and perspectives.”

Throughout the process, administrators have been careful to note their role only as facilitators of conversation and the fact that the University cannot force CSG to take any specific action. Proppe said he plans to motion Tuesday for the proposal to be considered again, but no other separate meeting has been scheduled.