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A photo of a building and gates on the Smith College campus adorned with holiday lighting.

College Hall, which students are currently occupying, is pictured here during the holidays.

Smith College

In the latest face-off between students and administrators over the war in Gaza, students at Smith College have been occupying the main administrative building on campus for almost a week, demanding the institution divest from weapons manufacturers that supply military machinery to Israel. The protesters say they will not leave College Hall until the institution commits to divestment, according to statements on the social media pages of the college’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, which is spearheading the demonstration. 

Approximately 50 students are participating in the protest, SJP members said on social media; photos show that students have brought pillows, air mattresses, large amounts of food and other items into the building. A photo showed a Palestinian flag bearing the words “Smith divest now” flying above College Hall, where the American flag is typically displayed.

No arrests or student conduct charges have been made, although students “are allegedly in violation of several elements of the Student Code of Conduct including unauthorized entry or use of a building, abuse of property, and disruption of college activities,” Carolyn McDaniel, Smith’s director of media relations, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

According to McDaniel, the protest has had an impact on students’ abilities to access certain offices located inside College Hall, including Student Financial Services, the Office of Disability Services and the Title IX office.

The occupation, she wrote, has made it difficult for “those with pressing needs to get the help they deserve. We are aware, for example, of a family who drove a considerable distance to discuss FAFSA assistance from financial services and they weren’t sure how to proceed upon learning that the office was inaccessible. We were able to help them in other ways, but it caused this family needless concern.”

McDaniel also confirmed that Smith has hired additional security to patrol the area.

The protest began on March 27, one day after the college's Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility rejected a proposal to divest from all weapons manufacturers, saying its investment in these companies was “negligible and indirect,” according to a screenshot of the committee’s email posted to the Instagram page of Smith’s SJP chapter.  

In an anonymous letter on the same Instagram page, a student wrote that the group had been in conversations with the college about divestment since last October and had previously protested at a board meeting to insist board members discuss divestment. The student called the verdict disappointing and “abhorrent,” and questioned the claim that the investment in weapons manufacturers was insignificant. 

“If it was, then the College would have no problem with divestment … no matter how much they try to hide behind the structure and scale of their investments, Smith College prioritizes its profits over its morals,” the student wrote. 

Meeting With the President

Smith is far from the only college or university facing demands for divestment; the issue has long been a central focus of pro-Palestinian activists, especially at institutions funded by large endowments. After protests sprang up on college campuses last fall following Hamas’s attack on Israeli civilians and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza, divestment once again became a major focus for student activist groups, leading to clashes at institutions including Brown University and the University of Michigan.

McDaniel told Inside Higher Ed that divestment will not likely be reconsidered unless “materially different information is brought forward.”

President Sarah Willie-LeBreton met with pro-Palestinian protesters in College Hall on March 30, but they failed to reach a resolution that would end the demonstration, according to a Smith SJP Instagram post.

Beyond demanding divestment from weapons manufacturers, the protesters urged trustees to hold an emergency board meeting on the subject and requested that the college refrain from punishing students participating in the sit-in.  

The protesters also demanded that officials acknowledge an assault that they say took place on the first day of the demonstration. During an altercation captured on video from both inside and outside the building, an individual that Smith SJP identified as Jim Gray, associate vice president for facilities and operations, appears to grab and pull at a protester who was retrieving food handed through a window. 

According to notes taken by a member of SJP during the meeting and posted publicly, Willie-LeBreton said the incident is being investigated, a point McDaniel reiterated. The president also said she did not have the power to help the students avoid punishment for the sit-in and that she could not require the board to meet but that she would relay the SJP’s request. 

Many on the Smith campus appear to agree with the protesters’ mission, signifying their support by demonstrating outside College Hall and signing SJP’s petition, which has surpassed 1,400 signatures and outlines the same demands protesters brought to Willie-LeBreton on March 30. 

However, others have expressed dismay over the occupation. According to one anonymous email purportedly from a Smith student to Inside Higher Ed, the institution “has become a terrifying place with absolutely no consequence for breaking the law.”

“The college refuses to do anything to hold them accountable, and now the front doorstep of what’s supposed to be a brilliant college for smart women looks like a tent city of anti-Semitic drum circlers,” the author wrote.

The sit-in also comes after several antisemitic incidents occurred at Smith earlier in March. Swastikas were found on crosswalks and in two cases mezuzahs, religious symbols that some Jewish people affix to their doorframes, were ripped down near campus, the Boston Globe reported last month.

At press time, protesters still occupied College Hall. With the sit-in approaching the start of its second week, Smith’s main focus will be to ensure that students do not have their “education disrupted” by the demonstration, McDaniel wrote.

“We are continuing conversations with the students in College Hall and with the broader campus community. We continue to explore other ways for them to make their voices heard.”

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