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  • Robin Linares, Staff Writer

Students occupy university buildings, demand divestment from U.S. Defense Industry

Photo courtesy of Quinn Carbery.

On Friday, May 3, student protesters began a peaceful occupation of the third floor of the Putnam University Center (UC) to call on Willamette University to disclose and divest investments linked to the U.S. arms industry, joining the waves of student occupations across the country protesting Israel’s actions in the war with Hamas. As of Saturday, May 4 at 10:10 a.m., the protesters have since moved their occupation to the Hatfield Library, an area with increased campus visibility.

The organizers of the event, the Willamette Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), reached out to administrators to display their demands. Zander Huston (‘25), one of the organizers of the occupation and a member of the occupation group’s external communications team, sent an email to members of the administration at 10:51 a.m. on May 1 to display their demands. The list included the demand to “tell us if our money is funding genocide,” asking for a list of all corporations supported by Willamette endowment funds. The other demand was that the university “divest[s] from genocide” by canceling any investments involved in the U.S. arms industry. The email also stated that if the demands were not met by 5 p.m. on May 2, an occupation would begin. 

In a follow-up email sent on May 2, Huston reiterated the demands and included a list of 170 students who signed the petition. Huston also reached out to Dan Valles, senior vice president and chief operations officer, in the late afternoon of April 30 with specific questions and requests for resources to see whether university investments are tied to weapons manufacturers. 

According to a May 3 press release distributed by the SDS, “a representative met with an administrator who reminded us of the student code of conduct. We were assured that they would not be quick to call the police.” Additionally, the administration “affirmed ‘students’ right to freedom of expression and peaceful protest.’” Further, they mentioned that Valles replied to an SDS representative “and offered to ‘meet next week’ to talk.” Other administrative emails that were sent to the entire Willamette community on May 2 and 3 from outgoing Dean of Students for Community Care & Inclusion Olivia Muñoz and University President Steve Thorsett also indirectly and directly stated that Valles should be the point of contact for questions related to the university endowment.

Thorsett’s email to the Willamette community also provided an explanation of how Willamette manages endowment funds, explaining that the funds, which largely come from alumni donations and legacy gifts, are managed by an outside agency, Global Endowment Management (GEM). Alongside this, Willamette has an Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Consideration Policy created to ensure returns on investments while ensuring that the investments “align with Willamette’s values.”

In communication with The Collegian, Lauren Mulligan, the director of University Communications, reiterated that Valles is coordinating a meeting with the student organizers and that he “is the person to whom any questions about the endowment should be directed.”

However, according to an out-of-office email from Valles, he is out of office until Tuesday, May 7. Some organizers expressed frustration with this, especially as the university named Valles as the sole individual to discuss endowment funds. “I doubt that there's only one person in the whole university who knows what our endowment is invested in,” Huston said. “That seems highly unlikely.”

At 5:35 p.m. on May 4, Valles provided a statement to The Collegian in regards to his absence and explained why he proposed an in-person meeting. “I’m happy to meet with students who have questions and want to learn more about the endowment and how it supports the work of faculty, financial assistance to students and the unique Willamette student experience. Unfortunately, a long-planned family trip has me away from campus and on Eastern Time,” Valles explained. 

He also mentioned that there wouldn’t be many documents beyond the financial statements organizers have already found to show where investments go. “[Huston] had already located the financial statements, which are publicly available, and display how tuition and fee dollars are used. This is visible in the Statement of Activities,” Valles said. “The financial statements do not provide details of specific investments, and there are no other documents that do. Hence, my statement to Zander and my offer to meet in person to review how we manage the endowment.”

Senior Zeke Druker (‘24), another organizer of the occupation, clarified the nature of the request for divestment, noting that Willamette has undergone similar divestments in the past. Most recently, the university committed to divest from fossil fuels, and according to the 2021 Climate Action Plan, the university is 97.98% divested. “We think [of] eliminating that sector from Willamette investments in the same way that the fossil fuel sector was eliminated,” Druker said. “Previously, it’s been a reasonable demand.”

Since no additional information was released regarding which companies were being funded through Willamette investments by May 2 at 5 p.m., per the list of demands, the SDS began a campus occupation. 

The Occupation 

At noon on May 3, roughly 50 protesters met in Jackson Plaza to walk to the University Center building. According to an SDS organizer who requested to be quoted anonymously, the UC building was initially chosen as a “home base” as the building had “administrative offices and is a hub for students on campus.” Additionally, the source mentioned that the building provided additional safety as it has 24-hour access and the facilities needed for an overnight stay. 

Student protestors hold up signs in the UC. Photo by Keenan Yoshizawa.

Once the group arrived at the UC, they designated an area for food and other essential items like period products, first aid kits and paper communications. Additionally, once settled, two group meetings were held to discuss the goals of the protest, coordinate communication and watch schedules and receive group input on further logistical processes. The main takeaways expressed were that the occupation is nonviolent and there would be no blockade in place, meaning that administrators and employees on the third floor would not be blocked from entering their workspaces. However, the group clarified that in the presence of a university administrator, they would chant and restate their demands. Furthermore, organizers expressed that as this occupation is not a blockade, protesters are encouraged to study and do homework while occupying and to leave when needed, especially for their final exams. 

Around 20 protesters spent the night in the UC on May 3, but as a definite deadline looms with the end of finals, the group expressed a desire to increase visibility and leverage. “As the timeframe becomes shorter, we will be louder and stronger in order to reach demands in a safe and ethical way,” an SDS organizer explained.  

Student occupation of the library. Photo by Maille Olgyay.

This led to the May 4 occupation of the Hatfield Library, dubbed the Hind library by protesters in memoriam of the death of a 6-year-old Palestinian child in Gaza. Protests at other campuses such as Columbia University have also renamed campus spaces after the child. In a press release announcing this move, protesters stated that “we do not intend to loudly disrupt studying in the library. Our presence will be sufficient to demonstrate the strength of our movement. We invite other students to come and study in solidarity.” Additionally, according to a post on the SDS’ Instagram account, they were offering a board game hour open to all students “in solidarity with our Palestinian siblings,” and were planning a rally at Jackson Plaza. 

The move to occupy the library does present an increased risk for protesters, especially after the library closes as students do not have 24-hour access to the library. However, organizers anticipate a low risk of having outside law enforcement called. 

The occupation group is still internally considering the next steps when communicating with administrators next week, as many protesters will be leaving after finals, which end on May 8. However, with their peaceful occupation at the library, along with additional student engagement efforts, they hope the administration feels enough pressure to work with the organizers to meet their demands. As the anonymous organizer explained: “It’s in both parties’ best interest to come to a decision that fulfills our demands, as soon as possible.”

787 views4 comments


May 06

Why not link to your prior reporting on Druker for readers' benefit?


May 05

Why did the Collegian refuse to state who killed Hind? What is this vague passive voice about the IDF murdering a 6 year old?


May 05

If you are so true to your believes maybe you should uncover your faces. How sad that you are going this way, like joining a cult that will never change. The Bible says that Israel will fight to the end of days. Instead of fighting something that does not change why not do a food or money drive to really help, instead of destroying your college reputation?

May 05
Replying to

womp womp

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