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UConn student activists: Administration wasn’t listening

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UConn student activists: Administration wasn’t listening

May 22, 2024 | 4:59 am ET
By Luke Feeney
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An organizer speaks to a crowd of students, arms linked, after UConn police officers dismantled their tents and arrested a student as they set up UCommune in early May. CREDIT: SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR
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An organizer speaks to a crowd of students, arms linked, after UConn police officers dismantled their tents and arrested a student as they set up UCommune in early May. CREDIT: SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR

On its first night last month, the encampment at the University of Connecticut drew more than 300 students and protesters demanding that UConn divest from arms manufacturers with ties to Israel due to the ongoing military assault on Gaza.

The demonstration was part of a wave of protests in support of Palestinians as the death toll in Gaza grew after bombings by Israel in response to the devastating Oct. 7 attack on its soil by Hamas militants.

It was also the latest in a string of protests at UConn by student activists who, despite supporting different causes, say university officials are ignoring their demands and concerns. 

Activist groups across UConn’s campus over the last few years have accused the UConn administration and Board of Trustees of neither listening to nor taking the demands of students seriously over a variety of issues including sexual assault, war profiteering and climate change. 

“They know we are there, but they don’t say anything,” said Jenna Rabah, the president of Students for Justice in Palestine, in an interview with The Connecticut Mirror. 

A university spokesperson, however, said the university does listen but said officials may not always give students the answer they want.

“The UConn Board of Trustees welcomes and encourages input during the public comment portions of its meetings and has listened closely and respectfully to each speaker who has shared their thoughts on these and other topics,” UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said in a statement to the CT Mirror. “Even if an individual or group may not receive the answer they wanted, their opinions are still being heard and considered on these and all issues as UConn works to provide a safe, inclusive and caring campus community.”

But student activists remain undeterred and often join forces to strengthen each other’s causes.

Here is a look at some of the student-activist groups that have led the charge on recent UConn campus protests.

Students for Justice in Palestine

Rabah, a senior at UConn studying analytics and information management, is a first-generation Palestinian American born and raised in Middletown. Her parents are refugees from Gaza, and they have family members living there. Rabah said she has lost three family members since October as a result of Israeli airstrikes: two cousins and her uncle.

“With your collective silence in regard to the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Palestinians through the past 144 days, I have watched my family members get plucked out by the very same machine this university propels,” Rabah said at a meeting of the Board of Trustees on Feb. 28. “Since you have never expressed an ounce of compassion towards Palestinians, I will use this moment to remember family members of my classmates exterminated by Israel.”

UConn student activists: Administration wasn’t listening
UConn students on the lawn in front of Dove Tower waving a Palestinian flag in solidarity with those in Gaza. Credit: Luke Feeney / CT Mirror

Rabah is the president of the UConn chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a nationwide organization committed to ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and dismantling the separation wall. 

“Activism has always been a part of my identity,” Rabah said.

At UConn, SJP has had a presence since 2012 and has grown every year since, according to Rabah.

“Our club has been focused on cultural events, spreading the Palestinian narrative in any way we can,” Rabah said. “Recently, we’ve taken a shift into activism and being a loud presence on campus. It’s been protests and informational events.”

After Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, interest in Students for Justice in Palestine reached a fever pitch.

“I don’t think our club was built to handle the attention that we’ve gotten … it’s been absolutely insane,” Rabah said.

While some of the interest has been positive, such as increased student involvement  and awareness, there has also been an increase in racist rhetoric. On Halloween night, SJP received a voicemail from a man using racist language and stereotypes about Muslims. Rabah has said that after Oct. 7, members of SJP were harassed, called baby killers and terrorists.

A university spokesperson said UConn unequivocally “condemns Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of discrimination.”

“Over these past eight weeks, we have been having conversations with our Jewish, Muslim, and Palestinian students. These conversations have been difficult but also helpful, and we are proud of the efforts that UConn students have made to support each other and maintain dialogue at such a difficult time. A common theme emerging from these discussions has been that some students do not feel safe on our campuses,” UConn Provost Anne D’Alleva wrote in a statement in late November.

However, Rabah has accused UConn’s administration of not providing institutional support for Palestinian students. While SJP had several meetings with the dean of students, they have not been able to foster communication with UConn President Radenka Maric, according to Rabah.

“We see her be silent for us but at the same time she is at a march for Israel on campus. She has never once reached out to us.”

“The horrific attack on Israel this weekend and the escalating war with Hamas in Gaza are tragic reminders that hate, violence, and conflict, and the toll they take on civilians and particularly women and children, remain far too pervasive in society today,” Maric wrote in a statement on Oct. 9. “The devastating ripple effects have already reached our university community.” On Oct. 10, students gathered on the student union lawn to express solidarity with the Israeli victims of the attacks of Oct 7. 

For Rabah, it’s clear why Maric has been silent towards SJP’s requests. 

“Two years ago she was in Israel with Ned Lamont, looking at partnerships and research for things like military development and other types of research,” Rabah said. “Partnerships built on stolen Palestinian land.” 

Gov. Ned Lamont was the first Connecticut governor to visit Israel in nearly 25 years. There he met with leaders at the top of Israeli government and business, including President Isaac Herzog, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

The war in Gaza has created a coalition of student activists from groups across UConn. Rabah has made it clear that SJP will continue to work with other student-advocacy groups such as Revolution Against Rape, Fossil Fuel Free UConn and UNCHAIN. “We’re all fighting the same powers. Our collaboration is necessary,” Rabah said. 

Fossil Fuel Free UConn 

Fossil Fuel Free UConn was founded in September 2022 out of a desire to revitalize the climate movement at UConn.

“Our strategy in part was, OK, the president’s office is not taking it seriously and they’re not doing what they said they would do. So we’re gonna go to the Board of Trustees, basically President Maric’s boss, who has the authority to remove her anytime, but most importantly, they control the money,” said Dylan Steer, a junior from Stratford and member of the group.

Fossil Fuel Free UConn was founded on three principles: decarbonization of UConn, divestment of university funds — both direct and indirect — from fossil fuels, and a greater sense of accountability regarding how the university invests its money. Decarbonization is a method of climate change mitigation where institutions either significantly reduce or eliminate their reliance on fossil fuels.

“We are not a registered club, we don’t have the same structure as a lot of clubs and that’s on purpose. That’s deliberate. We don’t want to have that same structure. We are, in essence, a coalition made up of a lot of other clubs,” Steer said. 

As we’ve gone on, it’s become a lot more frustrating to work with the administration and to actually get movement on any of these decarbonization and divestment goals.

Dylan Steer, junior

In 2008, UConn signed the Carbon Commitment, committing to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. In 2019, then-university President Tom Katsouleas announced a student climate working group to take responsibility for coordinated analysis, policy formulation and strategic planning on issues of sustainability, particularly reducing emissions. Steer was a member of this student working group. 

Then, in 2022, in a letter to the undergraduate population, Maric announced a goal for carbon neutrality by 2030.

“I will work with the state, the federal government, donors, industry, and global partners to reduce UConn’s carbon footprint to carbon neutral by 2030,” Maric wrote. 

In addition, she promised a climate and sustainability plan by the spring of 2023. The plan ended up releasing this spring, a year after the promised date

“Maric’s Sustainability Action Plan is no more than a thinly veiled attempt to placate student demands for a sustainable future,” a statement put out by FFFU said. The group compared the new plan to UConn’s 2021 plan, which FFFU said had input from students, faculty and consulting groups and was far longer than the most recent plan.  

“At first, we saw President Maric kind of like an ally. She’s known as the clean energy expert. Everyone talks about her in that context,” Steer said. “But, you know, as we’ve gone on, it’s become a lot more frustrating to work with the administration and to actually get movement on any of these decarbonization and divestment goals.” 

The majority of the power generated on campus is from UConn’s central utility plant, a natural gas plant that is responsible for providing the campus with power. It also generates 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually. UConn’s 2024 Sustainability Action Plan contained no plans to phase out this power plant.

UConn student activists: Administration wasn’t listening
Members of FFFU rallying for UConn to cut their dependence on the fossil fuel industry last fall. Courtesy of Lilly Adamo Credit: Courtesy of Lilly Adamo

“At best, Dr. Xiao-Dong [Zhou] and President Maric are just not taking the issue seriously enough,” said Colin Rosadino, a UConn law graduate student from Glastonbury, referring to the professor hired to advise the UConn president in sustainability issues. “All that goes to say, President Maric has been pitched as an expert in the field of renewable energy, and yet I think it is safe to say UConn was on a better and more sustainable path before she was president, when we had an actual plan to achieve zero carbon at UConn.” 

FFFU has repeatedly shown up at meetings of the Board of Trustees to reiterate its demands.

“They’re like the legislative body of the university. So we go to them,” Steer said.

Despite that, members of FFFU still feel that UConn has not listened to their demands.

“This is not the first time we have come to the Board of Trustees to demand no more fossil fuels,” said Emma Paynter, a graduate student and member of FFFU, at the February meeting of the Board of Trustees. “We are all in agreement: we need to decarbonize, divest from fossil fuel companies and disclose the process. But we have not seen true progress yet.”  

While the majority of its focus is on climate policy, FFFU has engaged in collaborative work with other groups.

“Fossil Fuel Free UConn stands in solidarity with UConnDivest at the encampment outside the UConn School of Business,” the group wrote in a statement on Instagram. “Accountability and justice are the common ideals for struggle that FFFU unequivocally stands for.”

Revolution Against Rape 

Hannah Pierson, a senior from Glastonbury, is the president of Revolution Against Rape, a registered student organization at UConn founded in January 2012 in the aftermath of a “slut walk” protest at the university in 2011. A “slut walk” is a form of protest against blaming victims instead of the assaulter.

The term stemmed from a case in 2011 in Toronto, when a police constable reportedly said women should avoid dressing like “sluts” in order to avoid being victimized. Outrage at the comment led to “slut walks” all over the world.

RAR is an organization specific to UConn. Its purpose is to empower survivors and promote awareness of sexual violence.

It has held an annual March to End Victim Blaming since 2014. It also conducted letter-writing campaigns this semester for S.B. 4 — an act that, if passed, would have increased protections and funding for domestic violence victims in many municipalities throughout the state.

Last January, the group presented 16 demands to the Board of Trustees. 

The demands included: greater efficiency in university investigations of sexual assault,  increasing resources available to students; bi-monthly meetings of the Presidential Task Force on Combating Sexual Violence and Supporting Our Students; additional staff in various departments funded from the reallocation of funds from the UConn Police Department; and more easily accessible reports.

The group also called for public training records for UConn police officers, creation of residential life policies and procedures regarding sexual and gender misconduct, an online system for submitting a university no-contact letter, protections for victim-survivors who experience sexual violence in various forms online and monthly testing of the university’s blue light system.

We very quickly realized that if we are going to learn these radical perspectives on the world around us that we should be able to put those values into action.

Nell Srinath, chair of UNCHAIN

This spring, RAR’s main priority was to update and improve the university’s blue light system. Blue light systems are a series of emergency alarm stations strategically located throughout the campus to provide assistance to anyone in distress.

“For the three years I have been a Husky, I have walked past multiple broken blue lights that have been out of commission for months at a time. Alumni Quad? Broken. East Campus? Broken. The infamous Rape Trail? Broken,” Grian Wizner, vice president and treasurer at RAR, said at a February meeting of the Board of Trustees.

“I am not asking for 100% solutions tomorrow, but I am asking for the minimum: the minimum should be working blue lights. We have spoken on this issue three years ago. We have been ignored once. I am asking politely. Do not ignore us again,” Wizner said. 

Several members of RAR joined other groups during the pro-Palestine encampment at the Dove Tower and showed support on social media.

UNCHAIN

“We began as a reading group, called Freedom Reads. We wanted to read radical literature,” said Nell Srinath, the chair of UNCHAIN. “We very quickly realized that if we are going to learn these radical perspectives on the world around us that we should be able to put those values into action.”

UNCHAIN was created in January 2021 as a group that would meet to discuss works from famous left-wing authors throughout history. However, as time went on, the group evolved into an organization focusing on mutual aid and activism. Starting March 2021 and continuing for another two and a half years, the group began mutual aid programs in Willimantic, handing out free food and supplies near Memorial Park.

It has three ideological focuses: anti-imperialist, decolonization and anti-racism.

“As soon as we all got on campus [after COVID restrictions were lifted], we organized,” Srinath said. That fall, UNCHAIN organized a sit-in during President Joe Biden’s visit to The Dodd Human Rights Center. In spring 2022, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, UNCHAIN held a sit-in at Maric’s office, demanding that UConn cut ties with arms manufacturers who, due to the war, were seeing increasing production and profits from the sale of weapons.

Last fall, the group held a “demilitarize UConn rally” and brought three demands to UConn: ban Raytheon and Lockheed Martin from recruiting at UConn career fairs, ban those same contractors from recruiting in UConn classrooms and abolish Lockheed Martin Day, which celebrated the partnership between UConn and Lockheed Martin connecting students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields to careers and internships.

The Board of Trustees voted on Feb. 28 to rename a room in the Science 1 Research Center to the “RTX Technology Research Center.” 

In 2023, RTX was the second largest military contractor both nationally and globally, generating 59% of its revenue from the U.S. and other militaries. RTX is composed of three major subsidiaries: Raytheon, including its military arm Raytheon Missiles & Defense, Pratt & Whitney and Collins Aerospace. The latter two subsidiaries are based in Connecticut. Bryan K. Pollard, the company’s Associate General Counsel, is a sitting member on the UConn Board of Trustees.

“They responded to us by deepening our dependency on the military industrial complex. They haven’t had a Lockheed Martin Day this year, so there’s that. But I suspect they are trying to be a little more subtle with how they interact with weapons contractors in the presence of a student body that is vehemently against it,” said Christopher Coolbeth, an activist in UNCHAIN.

UNCHAIN focuses on in-person outreach. They refer to it as “catching.” The process is simple: go to an event that is happening on campus, bring flyers and present students with a short elevator pitch on the issue they want to raise. UNCHAIN has done this style of recruiting to push demilitarization campaigns, bring attention to divestment campaigns and criticize UConn’s proposed academic budget cuts.

UConn student activists: Administration wasn’t listening
Christopher Coolbeth is an activist with UCHAIN. Credit: Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

In collaboration with FFFU, RAR and other student organizations, UNCHAIN has put on three separate “disorientation” events for students.

“We like to take this nice little image that UConn has of being a city on a hill, turn it on its head, and reframe it as something that is implicated in an economy of mass death and environmental destruction,” Srinath said. “What disorientation is supposed to do is say: None of what is happening here is normal.”   

UNCHAIN has collaborated with SJP, RAR and FFFU numerous times — including the most recent encampment. They plan on continuing to work together.

“It takes a lot of effort, time and institutional knowledge to build this movement. I have a responsibility to share and help other people build the skills I’ve built over time … if I took everything I learned with me when I graduated, I would be suffocating everything that I’ve tried to build and everything I’ve seen built in my time here. I think that is something fundamentally selfish,” Srinath said.

However, student-activists have made it clear that their demands on UConn will not go away anytime soon.

“You have to try and piss people off and fail multiple times until you figure out how to do it successfully. You have to keep innovating and developing new strategies so that they don’t get used to placating you so you don’t become predictable until it becomes impossible to avoid and you can generate a response,” Srinath said.