Student demonstrations at Sewanee lead to promise of financial transparency, divestment

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted May 14, 2024

A student-led anti-war protest at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, resulted in the Episcopal university’s officials agreeing to meet some of the students’ demands, including a commitment to financial transparency and divestment over time. The student-led protests at Sewanee were part of larger pro-Palestinian demonstrations held at universities nationwide. Photo: Sewanee for Palestine/Instagram

[Episcopal News Service] A student-led anti-war protest at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, resulted in the Episcopal university’s officials agreeing to meet some of the students’ demands, including a commitment to financial transparency and divestment over time.

“From my place of faith, I find it really important to look at who’s being oppressed and suffering and to find ways to support and stand up for them, and that’s happening in Palestine right now,” Mairyn, a creative writing and interdisciplinary arts major at Sewanee, told Episcopal News Service. “We need to focus on ending the genocide.”

Mairyn, her last name is withheld at her request because of backlash she’s received on social media, is one of some 75 students who marched in late April and early May at Sewanee, where six students occupied the roof of All Saints’ Chapel on campus demanding school officials disclose where the school’s $440 million endowment goes and to sever ties with companies that manufacture weapons for Israel. Other protesters arranged a sit-in on All Saints’ steps and a student-led compline. They have been sharing their goals and updates on Instagram. On May 9, Sewanee officials met with students to explain how the school’s endowment works and the framework used to make investments.

The University of the South is owned by 28 Episcopal dioceses. Many Episcopal bishops serve on its board

The student-led protests at Sewanee were part of larger pro-Palestinian demonstrations, some remain ongoing, held at universities nationwide. The demonstrations grew significantly in early April, when Columbia University students set up an encampment to protest the war and call for the Ivy League institution to disclose and divest from companies with financial ties to Israel, including those in the weapons manufacturing sector. The protesters have also been calling for a ceasefire in Gaza since the war began in October 2023, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 34,000 Palestinians, and at least 1,700 Israelis.

Some college administrators, for instance at Columbia University, have called in law enforcement to clear pro-Palestinian encampments, which have in some cases turned violent and have so far led to more than 2,800 arrests, expulsions, suspensions and the cancellation of classes. Some schools have canceled their commencement ceremonies. 

Sewanee’s administrators instead offered to negotiate with student protesters and amicably end the protest and the semester. The protest officially ended the evening of May 2 without disciplinary actions taken, intervention by law enforcement or damage to All Saints’ Chapel.

Sewanee vice-chancellor Robert Pearigen addressed the protests in a schoolwide statement the following day: Many of the challenging issues of the world were highlighted here on our own campus and, I believe, we learned and grew from the experience. …I’m urging all of us to embrace our most empathetic selves and to consider how truly fortunate we are to live and work, study and play in such a close community and such a beautiful setting.”

Divestment is a process that takes time, and students say they’re prepared to engage with university officials over the long term. One of their goals is for Sewanee’s student-run investment club, Green View Capital, to divest from weapons manufacturing companies that are on The Episcopal Church’s “no-buy” company list due to contributing to human rights violations. Green View Capital manages $3.2 million of Sewanee’s endowment.

“I’m appreciative of the administration and the way they handled everything,” Alexander “Xan” Mihalas, a Sewanee student majoring in biology, told ENS. “I’m also not satisfied with what we do have. …I don’t think much is going to happen if we don’t continue to press the university in other ways.”

Sewanee officials released a list of commitments in a written statement to the campus community, including plans to adopt a formal environmental, social and governance – more commonly known as ESG – framework by 2025 to be a part of any new investment policy. ESGs are an individualized criteria companies use to demonstrate “responsible investing.”

As for divesting from direct investment in weapons manufacturing, the statement says the University of the South will solicit input from stakeholders, including students, per the adopted ESG framework.

“As an institution, we have students, faculty, staff, and alumni with different viewpoints on this tragedy and many other topics. Our commitment of solidarity is based on the respect for the dignity of every human being and the free expression and exchange of ideas.

“Furthermore, the Baptismal Covenant of The Episcopal Church, as set out in the Book of Common Prayer, calls upon the baptized to ‘strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.’ This statement characterizes the University’s ethos and calls us to solidarity with people of all races and cultures, and in this case those in anguish over the humanitarian crises in Gaza, the wider Middle East, and throughout the world.”

Meanwhile, on May 9, Union Theological Seminary became the first-known higher-education institution to divest from all companies profiting off the Israel-Hamas war.

When most of Columbia’s campus closed last month in the aftermath of violent clashes between protesters, police and counter-protesters, Union Theological Seminary’s campus, located one block north of Columbia, remained open. Some Columbia students went there to study at the library or pray during the last few weeks of the semester.

Some seminarians, like Silas Kotnour from the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, supported Columbia students by distributing coffee and leading Christian worship in the encampment. 

“I wish Columbia administrators could have seen the encampment as a place of interreligious solidarity. It was a very good place of community,” they told ENS. “I think the administrators’ actions, having the police remove protesters and cause physical harm … I’m grateful no one died.”

Samuel Ponniah, a graduate student in theology at Sewanee, told ENS he sees “lots of parallels” between the war in Gaza and the gospels, particularly the stories of Jesus’ birth and the Good Samaritan:

“Jesus himself and his family were occupied by the colonizer, the Romans. They were refugees, and Jesus’ birth story is about the killing of innocents by the power-hungry.

“How we understand this whole concept of loving thy neighbor that Jesus talked about, it was about the most vulnerable person. In today’s context, for me, the most vulnerable community – in addition to what’s happening in Sudan and in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia – is the people in Gaza. Therefore, I think that all of us have a moral and ethical responsibility to give voice to them.” 

Ponniah, Kotnour, Mihalas and Mairyn all said it’s important for people to understand that the war between Israel and Palestine isn’t a religious conflict, but rather an ethnic one.

“Zionism is not Judaism, and not every Palestinian is Muslim,” Ponniah said. “Supporting Jewish people is not equal to supporting the state of Israel, which is a political power. If you can’t distinguish these elements, then we are at an impasse.” 

Many Jewish students nationwide have reported fearing for their safety since protests swelled last month. Some students said pro-Palestinian protesters have verbally attacked them unprovoked while walking across campus to classes. Columbia recently suspended one of the student protest leaders, Khymani James, after a video of him saying “Be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists” and “Zionists don’t deserve to live” went viral.

Many pro-Palestinian protesters have been criticized for using the word intifada, literally meaning “shaking off” in Arabic, as a rallying cry because of its association with previous deadly clashes between Palestinians and Israelis. Some Jewish people who lived through the first and second intifadas have reported feeling “triggered” and “retraumatized” by protesters using the word during demonstrations.

Mairyn, however, said she doesn’t think the word intifada is antisemitic.

“Antisemitism and violence against Jewish people are horrible, but it’s important we recognize that this movement is not antisemitic or pushing for antisemitic rhetoric,” Mairyn said. “Context is important, and while there are people involved with the movement who have these toxic ideologies – and we need to be policing those people out of the movement – dismissing the whole movement as antisemitic would erase the work of Jewish activists and students and who have put their education and safety on the line for something that they believe in.”

Kotnour said they’ve lately been thinking of a quote by prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics and a geography professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York: “Where life is precious, life is precious.” 

“It has been guiding me,” they said. “I want Jewish and Israeli lives to be precious, and I want Palestinian lives to be precious.”

 -Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.


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