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Sewanee students protest for Gaza, seek continued action from school

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Sewanee students protest for Gaza, seek continued action from school

Jun 04, 2024 | 5:59 am ET
By Lonnie Lee Hood
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Sewanee students protest for Palestine, seek continued action from school
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All Saints' Chapel at Sewanee: The University of Tennessee. (Photo: Getty Images)

Among the recent protests on Tennessee college campuses by students calling for divestment from industries supporting Israel in the ongoing conflict with Gaza was a three-day occupation of a school building at the Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. — the first student-led protests since the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, according to student organizers. 

Students occupied All Saints’ Chapel from April 30 to May 2 to support the libration of Gaza, to oppose civilian genocide and to ask the school administration to make changes to the school’s endowment fund by divesting from weapons and arms manufacturers.

The protests at Sewanee come among a swath of demonstrations across Tennessee and the rest of the country. Earlier in May, University of Tennessee students in Knoxville gathered for a pro-Palestinian demonstration that resulted in the arrest of two students, and in April, Vanderbilt University students created the Vanderbilt Divestment Coalition camp on school property.

According to Sewanee’s website, Sewanee’s endowment is worth nearly $440 million. An email from Vice-Chancellor Rob Pearigan to a student, obtained by the Lookout, said that about 1.3%, or around $5.72 million, is invested in the aerospace and defense industries. 

Marcel Lettre, a member of Sewanee’s Board of Regents, is the Vice President of Space Programs at defense and weapons manufacturing giant Lockheed Martin. The University of the South is the only college governed by 28 dioceses of the Episcopal Church, which states in its ethical investing policy that prohibited, or “no-buy” stocks includes weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and others.

“We have a lot of privilege in the United States to speak freely. I think that college student movements are super influential because it’s a way we can put economic and political pressure on the government and in this case, Israel.

– Sparrow Womack, sophomore

In a statement made to the Sewanee campus community, Pearigan said a change in portfolio managers was already underway prior to protests. Students who organized the demonstration said they look forward to a meeting with school administration scheduled in June. A panel of student organizers will be invited, where they plan to advocate for divestment.

“There is a song that Sewanee bases a lot of their education and philosophy around,” graduating senior Arthur Hampton said. “‘Psalm 133: Behold how good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity.’ The [school’s] honor code says we live with personal integrity and respect the dignity of all. We don’t want our education writings built off dollars from weapons manufacturers,” Hampton said.

Protestors said that local residents, a retired professor and other students made threatening comments and advances during the three-day occupation. On the last night of the protest, an estimated 300 counter-protestors and spectators gathered as Pearigen spoke to the crowd. 

Sophomore Sparrow Womack said that it was important to speak up in spite of being confronted by counter-protesters.

“We have a lot of privilege in the United States to speak freely,” Womack said. “I think that college student movements are super influential because it’s a way we can put economic and political pressure on the government and in this case, Israel.”

In another statement sent to students, Pearigan said the university has made three commitments, which include an increase in transparency about endowment holdings, implementing an environmental, social, and governance framework as part of the new investment policy and showing solidarity with students, staff and alumni. 

“This has been a difficult but important and meaningful week in the life of the university,” Pearigan said in a statement to the Lookout. “We’ve made commitments to one another that will help us in the future, and we’re in a better position to move forward as an institution and as individuals.”

Officials did not respond to additional questions about endowment distribution. 

Hampton praised consistent communication between students and administration and said they hope a culture of demonstration on campus will be reinvigorated. 

“Fifty years without any kind of student involvement or action, especially going through Apartheid, going through the Iraq war, the 2008 financial crisis — we need a forum and a way for students to express themselves, through civil disobedience if necessary. We’re hoping to see the roots of student organizing here at Sewanee.”

email _ Webview _ Update on the Student Protest_ A message from Vice-Chancellor Pearigen