PROVIDENCE — Less than a week after 20 students were arrested at Brown University during a sit-in over the war in Gaza, more than 190 faculty members delivered a letter to President Christina Paxson expressing support for the students who called for the university to “do its part” to promote an immediate ceasefire and divest its endowment from weapons manufacturers.
The letter calls for Paxson to drop all legal charges against the students and exempt them from all disciplinary actions. Faculty members delivered the letter to Paxson’s office on Nov. 9, and it was published in the Brown Daily Herald, the student-run newspaper, on Monday.
The faculty members wrote that they were “deeply dismayed” by the university’s decision to have the students arrested, and called for the university’s leadership to “open a campus-wide conversation that engages seriously with the students’ demands.”
The group of students who were arrested and charged with willful trespassing, members of the newly-formed group BrownU Jews for Ceasefire Now, called on the university to divest its endowment from companies that “enable war crimes in Gaza,” which include weapons manufacturers. The sit-in began around 1 p.m. on Nov. 8, and arrests began around 5:45 p.m., when students were escorted out of University Hall by Brown police and into Providence police transport vans outside the Van Wickle Gates.
Lily Gardner, a Brown sophomore and one of the organizers of the sit-in, told the Globe that each of the students who participated in the action was Jewish. “I think this was really necessary to break through the rhetoric, and without claims that this belief is antisemitic,” said Gardner. “We took a stand for Brown.”
Amanda McGregor, a Brown spokeswoman, said the university does “not have a practice of responding through news media to address our community’s concerns.”
“Rather, we value direct dialogue and engagement with the faculty, students and staff who engage with us on matters of interest to the Brown community,” said McGregor. “The president, provost and other senior leaders at Brown continue to meet with members of our community about a range of questions and concerns as the situation continues to evolve on campus and globally concerning the Israel-Hamas war.”
McGregor said the charges against the 20 students “have not been dropped.”
Protests in the form of sit-ins are a vital part of the legacy at Brown, the faculty members wrote in their letter. Through the 1980s, Brown students became involved in a movement to pressure the university to divest from South Africa, where apartheid allowed legal segregation based on race. More than 500 students rallied in front of University Hall on Nov. 8, 1985. It led to a the partial divestment, and additional student-led protests through 1987.
Another university group, Brown Students for Justice in Palestine, has also called for Brown to divest its endowment of weapons manufacturers that “profit from Israel’s apartheid regime, including Textron, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman,” and others. Students on other US university campuses are making similar demands of their school endowments.
Yale University, for example, is reconsidering its policies regarding investments in weapons manufacturing companies. Earlier this year, Students Demand Action, a grassroots network of Everytown for Gun Safety, launched a campaign calling on colleges across the United States to divest from the gun industry. Students have signed on from all over the country — including the University of Chicago, Miami University, and the University of California, Davis.
At Brown, a divestment from these companies was explored in 2020 by the University’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Practices. But the group’s recommendation to divest “did not meet established standards for identifying specific entities for divestment or the articulation for how financial divestment from the entities would address social harm as defined in the committee’s charge,” Brown spokesman Brian Clark told the Globe last week. The recommendation was not brought to the Brown Corporation for consideration.
On Monday, faculty members wrote in their letter that the university should “reopen the discussion on divestment.”
“We urge you to exercise thoughtful, moral leadership at this critical time, Madam President, and thus enable Brown University to be on the right side of history,” the faculty members wrote to Paxson.
In the moments before the arrests began last week, more than 150 students stood near University Hall singing and shining flashlights on their mobile phones, according to videos shared with the Boston Globe. Some supporters sang songs and prayed.
“As each student was led out handcuffed from University Hall, they were greeted by hundreds of students — Jewish, Arab, Black, Hispanic, and many others — singing prayers and songs of solidarity in Hebrew,” the letter wrote. “At a time when peer universities are experiencing unparalleled levels of conflict, tension, and toxicity, Brown’s students enacted on Nov. 8 the kind of moral courage and peaceful solidarity that we at Brown have historically cultivated and defended. Their action illustrates dramatically that Brown has a singular history and legacy.”
This story has been updated with comments from a Brown University spokesperson.