Students Occupy Chapel: Maybe a Win-Win?

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Late on the evening of Thursday, May 3, a cohort of students self-named “Sewanee for Palestine” ended their three-day occupation of All Saints’ Chapel. The protest began with a march and rally on the morning of April 30. By day three, with tension mounting, the student encampment on the rooftop had attracted national media attention and the students’ numbers had grown from five to eight.

“Wednesday, we talked with the vice chancellor and agreed if he would meet with us here at 11 a.m. today, Thursday, we would remove the banners so the seniors could have their photo taken at the chapel,” said senior Erin Wilcox giving a timeline of events. Vice-Chancellor Rob Pearigen agreed. The traditional senior group photo in front of the chapel showed no signs of the dis-ease fomenting behind the scenes.

At 11 a.m., Thursday, Pearigen read from a prepared statement responding to the students’ demands that the university “disclose … all University investments and endowment holdings” and “divest University money from all direct investment in weapons manufacturing.” The students already had some knowledge of University investment in weapons manufacturing. “We know part of the money is going to Boeing and Honeywell because Green’s View Capital, our student run investment, releases a tiny amount of information,” said freshman Sarah Emery Bettis. “We also learned a vice president of Lockheed Martin is on the board of regents.”

Pearigen said transition to a new investment manager was underway and the University would disclose all endowment investments by Jan. 1, 2025, and, going forward, annually. The Investment Management Committee would invite a delegation of students to meet with them to discuss investment strategies during the June meeting of the Board of Regents, one student representative from Green’s View and the other five selected by students. The University would adopt “an Environmental, Social, and Governance framework … to align University investments with University values and principals.” Student stakeholders would have an opportunity to provide their “perspective” and “input” on the “direct investment in weapons.”

Students responded they wanted “to see a little deeper” into the current investment allocations and were concerned the student voice “wouldn’t be heard” in investment decision making. “You have my word,” Pearigen said. He asked students to be “respectful of the process that needs to play out” with the transition to the new investment management and adopting new practices.

In response to the third student demand, a commitment of “solidarity with the people of Gaza and students around the United States who have experienced violence for exercising their first amendment rights,” the University statement affirmed the “respect for the dignity of every human being and the free expression and exchange of ideas” and made reference to “the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”

Students wanted a statement condemning the “genocide” and asked if the University would “demand a cease fire.” “We’re not getting into the politics of what’s happening around the world,” Pearigen replied. “We don’t do that. I want to focus on what you asked us to focus on … I’d like to have this concluded by four o’clock today.”

“You’re asking us to move without our demands actually having been met,” a student objected. The students on the Chapel roof complained they were unable to hear and requested a written copy of the University’s response. Pearigen agreed to provide the document, but he stressed, “It’s time for us to get back to business … what’s happening up there is not good. It’s not safe. I share liability. I cannot continue to allow this behavior.” He cited the Code of Conduct which prohibited “disruption” of events and specifically forbid being on rooftops and balconies of the Chapel. “If things don’t move quickly, there will be the possibility of suspension or expulsion … I’ll be back at two … I want you off the roof by four.”

At the two o’clock meeting, Pearigen apologized for his “time to get back to business” remark, conceding “This [situation] building a better world is our business.” The students still had not received a written copy of the University’s commitments. Pearigen said he would release the statement to the entire community and would extend the deadline to five o’clock. He also offered to let the students relocate to the lawn of Spence Hall reiterating his safety concerns. “The level of tension is increasing. Tragic circumstances are playing out on campuses across the country.”

“We need guaranteed amnesty for everyone on the roof,” said Wilcox, “A guarantee in writing … We appreciate you extending the deadline, but a few hours is not enough time [to review the University’s statement of commitments]. And we’d like to review the amnesty document with our lawyer. We ask you to extend the deadline to 8 p.m.” Provided the students agreed with both documents, the students would “begin coming out” at eight.

Pearigen, again, agreed. “I have no intention of taking any disciplinary action if nothing else happens,” he said.

Throughout the afternoon visitors stopped by to pass along their support, including an antiwar Vietnam War veteran, Tennessee State Representative Aftyn Behn from Nashville. “I was in a group chat, and someone said you started an encampment,” Behn told the students. “I had to come down here.” Asked about how things were going for the Vanderbilt protestors, Behn replied, “Not so well,” unoptimistic about the outcome. “It’s not about antisemitism,” observed one supporter. “It’s about genocide,” replied another. The remarks echoed the comment of rooftop protestor Max McCloud, a University sophomore, in a statement to WKRN News, “This is not an anti-war protest, this is an anti-genocide protest.”

A student who stopped by said he had heard the request for amnesty would not be granted. “I want to walk the line at graduation,” senior Erin Wilcox insisted.

Late that afternoon, the rooftop protestors received both the statement of commitments and an email addressed to the entire student body from Dean of Students Erica Howard granting the protestors amnesty if they left and cleared the building of signs and banners by eight.

Shortly after 8 p.m., the banners came down and the students came out. Their public statement on Instagram declared the protest a “victory.” “The All-Saints’ occupation ended tonight after University administration agreed to a partial meeting of protestor demands, as well as full legal and disciplinary amnesty.”

Said Vice-Chancellor Pearigen, “We’re making some substantial changes in our policies, and I appreciate the fact this situation has moved us toward making these commitments.”

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