USF Student Activists Establish a “People’s University”

Niki Sedaghat, Inés Ventura, Megan Robertson, Phebe Bridges, Chase Darden, & Sophia Siegel 

Columbia University was the first U.S. campus to establish an encampment for Gaza on Apr. 17. USF’s People’s University follows in their example. Photo by Samantha Avila Griffin/SF Foghorn.

USF’s “People’s University” student encampment for Gaza has been a presence on campus for nine days, accumulating nearly 100 tents on Welch Field, at the time of print. USF’s campus has witnessed many demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians since Oct. 2023, however, this encampment marks USF’s largest and longest student demonstration for Gaza.  

Welch Field’s typically idle expanse is now filled with tents, signs expressing solidarity with Palestinians, an “ofrenda” (altar) for victims of the war and a long canvas bulletin of the encampments’ demands for USF administration pinned to the field’s largest tree. 

According to the encampment’s media representative, a third-year student who has been active in demonstrations since Oct. 2023 and has been granted anonymity due to safety concerns, for organizers to disband the encampment, their demands need to be met by the administration.

What is happening at the encampment? 

Organizers utilize the @usfcastudents4palestine Instagram account to communicate with students and community members information about their movement. 

At the beginning of each day since the encampment’s establishment, the account has posted a schedule outlining the day’s events, often including guest speakers, political grounding sessions, wellness and community circles and prayer sessions. There are designated times for breakfast, lunch and dinner, commonly prepared or donated by members of the surrounding community. The encampment hosts tables and tents dedicated to medical services, food and information booths. 

The @usfcastudents4palestine account posted a list of 11 community guidelines and principles of unity on the second day of the encampment, which participants recite together each day. These include a commitment “to remain grounded in why [students] enter this space,” a recognition of “our roles as visitors, and for many settlers, on this land” and a commitment “to good-faith engagement.” 

How did this begin?

Approximately 150 students, professors and community members gathered for a “USF Divest From Israel” walkout on Apr. 29, which then became the creation of the encampment. 

After addressing the crowd, organizers led the protestors towards Welch Field. As the group approached, students ran out towards the field and began to assemble tents as other walk-out attendees locked arms and formed a wide circle around them. Students pulled out tents, sleeping bags and other supplies from blue bins, which are typically used to move students in and out of dormitories. 

A speaker addressed the crowd saying, “Welcome USF students, welcome to our People’s University of Palestine! We have come together to join the national student movement and demand USF to uphold its own mission statement and oppose the genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.” Students circling the encampment were invited to approach organizers if they wished to camp.

By the end of the encampment’s first day on Apr. 29, 47 tents were set up on Welch Field. 

USF has joined a myriad of other schools with pro-Palestinian encampments on-campus. Protestors at Columbia University were the first to set up an encampment for Gaza, beginning on Apr. 17, and in the following weeks encampments have sprung up globally, with at least 14 college and university encampments in California. 

What are protestors calling for? 

The protestors have shared the following five demands for university officials, according to their Instagram.  

“1. Condemn the Israeli occupation’s genocide of Palestinians.

2. USF must immediately disclose all Israeli occupation-affiliated endowments and investments.

3. Ensure divestment from Israeli occupation-affiliated endowments and investments.

4. USF end all academic partnerships with the Israeli occupation.

5. USF must protect pro-Palestine students on campus.”

What do these demands mean? What is the University’s response? 

USF spokesperson Kellie Samson stated that “USF administrators are working through aspects of the demands, researching questions, and involving others in the university’s leadership team in order to respond fully.”

Jeffrey Paris, acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, stated to the Foghorn that “the university leadership and Board of Trustees is currently working through these, and we look forward to conversations with our students.” 

According to the encampment’s media representative, the student organizers’ intentions with the demands are to, “Get it right. We’re here to hold the school accountable for the actions that we may not see, for the words that we do hear or we may not hear.”

To better understand these demands and the nuances surrounding them, the Foghorn spoke to administration, organizers, and other campus figures. 

In addition to our frequent reporting within the encampment, we sat down with President Paul Fitzgerald, S.J., Provost Eileen Chia-Ching Fung, Associate Vice President of Finance and Treasury Stacy Lewis and Vice President of Student Life Julie Orio on May 6, to hear their responses to the student demands and their thoughts on students’ protest rights.  

What does the first demand entail? 

Regarding why Fitzgerald has yet to call the situation in Gaza a genocide, despite the International Court of Justice has ruling a genocide in Gaza “plausible,” Fitzgerald said, “My academic training is in sociology and systematic theology… I would leave it to others who have the expertise to make that sort of a judgment. And we would support any professor who’s making that judgment.”

When asked on whether he had ever released a statement in collaboration with a professor who had more expertise, Fitzgerald said, “not to my recollection.”

“The big difference [between encampments then and now is that] we’re seeing is that the pushback from the government and from university administrations and state governments in some places has been much, much more severe,” USF professor and expert Stephen Zunes said. “I’m thankful that, thus far, both the protesters have not been provocative, and that the administration has been pretty mellow.” Photo by Samantha Avila Griffin/SF Foghorn.

What does USF’s investment process actually look like? 

In regards to the second and third demands, Lewis explained that as a private institution, USF is legally omitted from having to disclose any investments. 

The university’s endowment is invested in a “diverse portfolio,” which is valued at $510 million.  “Most of the assets within the endowment are pooled and invested in one managed endowment portfolio,” according to USF’s Finance Treasury website

Lewis said, “We don’t really have a lot of investments where we’re directly investing in companies, because we hire a lot of outside investment managers.” 

USF’s Socially Responsible Investment Policy values “the sacredness of life” and “human rights” in addition to the prevention of investing in “weapons of mass destruction.” Lewis said that any outside investment managers have to abide by this policy when they invest on USF’s behalf. 

Does USF invest in Israeli-occupation-affiliated corporations? 

On Feb. 28, the Associated Students of the University of San Francisco (ASUSF) Senate passed a resolution entitled, “Resolution to Divest from Companies Affiliated with the Israeli Occupation.” The senators called on USF to disclose if they hold investments in corporations flagged by the United Nations as “aiding the ongoing apartheid system within the state of Israel.” The resolution subsequently calls for USF divest from any such investments.

After reviewing the resolution, Lewis wrote to Aderet Parrino, ASUSF vice president of advocacy and author of the resolution, on Apr. 23, communicating that the University “do[es] not invest in any of the companies named in the ASUSF resolution.” The Foghorn obtained this statement through Samson. However, Lewis noted, “a recent search showed that stock that is held directly at Northern Trust Corporation (one of our financial services companies) does include Booking Holdings, one of the entities listed in the resolution.”

Lewis conveyed to the Foghorn that the University is “working through” this discovery. 

The media representative for the encampment has shared that, while organizers were initially in  conversation with the senate, they ultimately “had to take it up a notch as organizers separate from ASUSF…[and] that it can’t just be done by senate…now [we] have to organize ourselves to respond.”

The organizers of the encampment have yet to release a list of corporations they specifically want USF to divest from. 

Does USF have a history of divestment? 

USF’s history of divestment dates back to the 1980s during apartheid, which was the official system of racial segregation in South Africa during the 1900s. To examine the University’s investments in South Africa during this time, then-University president Fr. John LoSchiavo, S.J., and the board of trustees formed an Investment Advisory Committee, which still stands today. The committee’s goal was to “[work] to determine USF’s moral responsibilities as a Jesuit/Catholic institution, and as a leading force in our community,” then-Chairman of the Investment Advisory Committee Joe Sehee in an October 1985 Foghorn article. 

They then tried to establish a “broad policy,” which the University would adhere to “at the emergence of any given moral issue in the future.” As a result of the investigation, in December 1985, the committee voted 6-1 and recommended the University “divest from all interest in South Africa,” following that decision. In April 1986, the Board of Trustees voted to “divest the University’s stock portfolio of all holdings in companies doing business in South Africa.” 

The divestment was executed over a multi-year schedule and affected approximately $2.3 million worth of common stock held in USF endowment funds, totaling 21 companies representing roughly 21% of the endowment at that time. In a March 1989 Foghorn article, then-University controller Charlie Cross said that the University was nearing total divestment from South Africa, with only 2.6% of the portfolio remaining invested, summarizing the divestment strategy as “take our profits and run.” Cross is today USF’s Vice President of Business and Finance.

According to the Foghorn’s Apr. 11 staff editorial, keffiyehs are “headdresses that have become
representative of standing with the Palestinian people.” Photo by Samantha Avila Griffin/SF Foghorn.

How do protestors perceive the encampment’s demands? 

Rawan Abdalla, a senior media studies major, has been involved with student demonstrations, and as previously reported in the Foghorn, often speaks on behalf of the crisis happening in Sudan. On the People’s University’s demands, Abdalla said that given “​​the economy in the capitalist world that we live in, I think it’s impossible for us to even expect USF to divest completely fully. But I think one of the main things is for them to take accountability and not have such an unbiased stance on it, because this is genocide.” 

The encampment’s media representative also spoke on their feelings towards the demands, saying that, “I believe [the administration is] scared that if they do call it a genocide, if they do try to sympathize with the Palestinian people, then they have donors, funders, trustees, every board of executive that is going to be upset that they did that.” 

What is the call for the end to academic partnerships?

Referring to the fourth demand, the encampment’s media representative said, “We are not going to stop until [USF] end[s] all partnerships with places and institutions that continue to exploit the people.” 

The Foghorn has investigated this demand through research and conversations with organizers, and we cannot fully determine which academic partnerships the organizers are referring to. The only academic-affiliated program currently connected to USF in the conflict zones is the Beyond Bridges Israel-Palestine Summer program, which according to USF’s website, “takes university students to the Middle East on a journey of comparative conflict analysis and conflict transformation.” The program was offered last summer. The program will not be offered this year, due to State Department travel restrictions.

How are student protestors being supported? 

On the first day of the encampment, Senior Director of the Department of Public Safety, Dan Lawson, spoke to the Foghorn regarding safety of protestors, relating to the organizers fifth demand. “Public Safety is only here to make sure they’re safe, and that they have their First Amendment rights,” he said.

Throughout most of the country, students enrolled in private institutions are not permitted the same rights to free speech as if they were on a public university’s campus. California is the only state that permits protections of free speech on private college campuses, due to the 1992 Leonard Law. However, this law does not “apply to a private postsecondary educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization.” 

While the Foghorn can not fully confirm nor deny, due to legal intricacies, whether USF falls under this jurisdiction, Samson stated, “Fr. Fitzgerald and Provost Fung firmly stand by students’ First Amendment right to peacefully protest and demonstrate on campus.” 

Lawson said, “We support a peaceful demonstration like this. And we understand the issues and how important it is for, you know, people to express their rights… about issues that involve human tragedy throughout the world.” 

On Apr. 29, Lawson said that outside law enforcement will not be called on students. “You won’t see a uniformed officer here at all from public safety. And we’re in communication with [police] … and advis[ing] them that we do not need their presence here.” He continued, “Obviously, if there was a safety issue that involves people being threatened here, then we would call them to help protect those who are present.”

“The motto here is change the world from here,” Lawson said. “So how can we, you know, go against our motto?” 

Organizers have collaborated with members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), as their own measure of protection. PSL members wear safety vests and circulate around the encampment 24/7. Kamila, a member of the party, spoke to the Foghorn during her security shift. “Right now, we’re making sure that people in the encampment feel safe, that no one from the outside tries to agitate.” She continued, “As a PSL member, I think we all are willing to participate in and support as long as the students need it.”

How are other community members responding? 

Protestors are not the only ones engaging with the encampment. Many USF professors have taken their classes to visit the encampment this past week. Sadie Benedetto, a sophomore art history major, was taken to the encampment with her Mideast People and Cultures class. “I was nervous,” Benedetto said. “At first…I felt like separated [from the encampment] because I was like…‘I don’t know if I can go in.’”

Being in the encampment with her class, however, Benedetto said, “[it] was something that kind of drew me back in and made me feel like I could interact more with people in the encampment and have more of a relationship.”

Additionally, campus organizations have interacted with the encampment. The Office of Sustainability hosted their “student artists’ market day” on Gleeson Plaza, adjacent to Welch Field, on May 2, to showcase Environmental Studies students’ capstone projects. According to Celia Celimene, a senior environmental studies student who led the event, “many people who are part of the encampment are also part of the capstone class, so it just seemed like a really good event to synergize a little bit.” 

The marketplace included a “free store” with food and other resources curated by the students in the capstone class. The event had been planned for that day and location, long before the encampment was set up, but Celimene decided to not relocate or cancel it. “I feel like with this event, my main intent would be like… don’t be afraid [to] actually be here,” she continued. “Go talk to them, go see what’s happening, and then also just to buy goods for them, because we have the free store and all the food, which has been strategically placed, like, right next to the encampment.” 

As of the time of print, St. Ignatius Parish’s services have remained uninterrupted by the encampment. Following Sunday May 5’s 5 p.m. Mass, a few parishioners told the Foghorn that they had not realized there was an encampment, as they entered the church through the Fulton Street and Parker Avenue entrances. Church leadership provided student protesters with dinner on May 2. 

The Foghorn received a letter on May 2 addressed to Fitzgerald from a group of 515 USF alumni, in support of the encampment. They are calling on University leadership to: 

“1. Ensuring the safety and protection of our students’ rights to protest and peacefully assemble without fear of police brutality and administrative retaliation

2. A public acknowledgment of the suffering of the Palestinian people

3. Disclose USF investments

4. Divest USF from Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid

5. Protection for all students”

If these demands are not met, the alumni signatories threaten to “refrain from contributing” financially to USF, omit USF in their professional accomplishments, abstain from celebrating USF graduates and distance themselves from Diversity, Equity and Inclusion measures held in their name. 

As for residents of the neighborhood, the Foghorn approached resident Daniel Sokatch, as he was walking by the encampment on the day it was established. He is the CEO of the New Israel Fund, a nonprofit organization working towards Palestinian and Israeli peace. “[Protesting is] something that I want college kids to do,” he said. “I think protests about what’s happening in Gaza and, frankly, the occupation that pre-existed Gaza are totally legitimate.”

“When I was in college, we protested… South Africa,” he said. “Symbolically, it matters…We don’t want the money from our school to go into [South Africa’s] regime.”

According to Al Jazeera’s most recent “Israel-Gaza War Live Tracker” update, in Gaza there have been at
least 34,789 deaths, with more than 14,500 of those being children. Photo by Samantha Avila Griffin/SF Foghorn.

How does this encampment fit into larger political narratives and historical contexts? 

On May 1, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that expanded the definition of anti-semitism according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition. While it has not yet become law, the bill aims to limit the “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity,” as reported by the Associated Press.

This legislation arrived a week after the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, called for an end to university protests, citing anti-semitism, in a statement he put out on Apr. 24.

Oren Kroll-Zeldin, a professor at USF and the assistant director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice (JSSJ), denied that USF’s encampment was anti-semetic. “It’s a very vibrant, inclusive, respectful space that is engaging with a lot of critical awareness and critical education,” Kroll-Zeldin said. “The fact that the House bill is trying to say that these encampments are anti semitic is… in line with the attempts to silence pro-Palestine activism for quite some time. It’s very clear to me that this campus protest is not about targeting Jews in any way, shape, or form.”

Remi Brandli, a junior media studies major involved in organizing the encampment, said, “Anti-semitism is real, period. In the context of Israel [and] Palestine… [Jewish people] have a platform, you have a community, and you have an entire faith that informs the perspective of social justice repairing the world. And this… encampment is that. Showing up and speaking out? That is aligned with Jewish faith and Jewish values from what I’ve learned at this school.”

In a talk hosted by encampment organizers on May 2, Lisa Rofel, a national board member of Jewish Voice for Peace, clarified the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism, saying “Let me say loudly and clearly, opposition to the genocide of the Palestinian people does not equal anti-Semitism. Student encampments protesting the genocide do not equal anti-semitism. Criticism of Israel does not equal anti-semitism. Rejection of Zionism does not equal anti-semitism.”

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and international studies, as well as the founding director of USF’s Middle Eastern Studies Program. He is also recognized as one of the country’s leading scholars in nonviolent action and Middle Eastern policy, previously featured on Al Jazeera and CNN. Zunes participated in these encampments against apartheid when attending university.

He told the Foghorn, “I think [encampments] can be quite effective in keeping an issue front and center because [they’re] quite visible. This is a tactic that was first used on college campuses back in the 1980s during a previous divestment campaign targeting apartheid South Africa.”

“[The apartheid protests] took an issue that was far away and brought it close to home, and it got people talking about it. The majority of American colleges and universities never divested from South Africa, but the movement gave rise to a broader movement across the country demanding sanctions against [the apartheid],” Zunes continued. “Eventually, after several years of these protests in college campuses, the United States finally imposed sanctions in South Africa.”

Will there be academic repercussions for student protestors? 

Other universities have levied suspensions or expulsions against students protesting in encampments. According to a statement from Samson, “Simply being associated with the encampment itself is not necessarily cause for sanctions or penalties by the University.”

She continued, “[Students] also know that there could be sanctions if they do not observe community standards around noise, posting flyers or posters, disrupting campus operations, or other campus policies.” 

Fung said that academic repercussions would come from professors if students in the encampment were to miss class. “We say follow the code of conduct… to ensure our community [is] safe, [that] all educational activities are not interrupted,” she said. “I want to remind students, when they are planning to miss classes, they should talk to the professor to ensure that your missing assignments, learning outcomes, or objectives are met. This is a standard policy for absences for students.”

Samson stated, “All information regarding protests and demonstrations is published in the Fogcutter Student Handbook. As outlined in Section 5.3 Respect For Community, an encampment erected on USF property without explicit permission is prohibited. In the case of the current encampment, the university has allowed the gathering, with the understanding that the participants are complying with all USF community standards.” 

Paris stated that “All students are expected to adhere to the student code of conduct, and also have a panoply of rights under the university conduct process.”   

What impact is this going to have on commencement?

University commencement ceremonies for the class of 2024 are scheduled to start next week inside St. Ignatius Church, and with the encampment occupying a popular post-ceremony congregation space, questions have been raised about whether the two parties will overlap. Many students in the encampment, such as Abdalla, are graduating seniors. 

“For me, I’m going to stay as long as it is safe for me to stay,” Abdalla said. “ I graduate in two [or] three weeks, I cannot risk graduation…As much as I want to be here, I also have a commitment to my mom and my dad. My parents are both immigrants, I’m the first of their [children] to graduate college. So I’m gonna stay here as long as it makes sense.”

Regarding commencement, Fung said “I do think that we also need to keep our promises to families, students, especially graduates who are completing their degree, right, and learning, especially those who are graduating. So my hope is that we will continue our dialogue to have a very constructive discussion with the student demands. We can offer the venues to our graduating seniors…but we haven’t made any decision.”

Has the administration visited the encampment?

According to a statement from Samson, “Father Paul was at the encampment on Tuesday afternoon (April 30) and spoke with several students. He does not have any formal meetings scheduled with organizers at this time.” Reporters from the Foghorn confirmed that he was seen outside the parameters of the encampment. 

In the Foghorn’s meeting with Fitzgerald on May 6, Fitzgerald clarified that, although he visited it externally, he “[has] not been invited into the encampment. So I try to go where invited. And I try not to go where my presence might be a distraction, or might be misinterpreted.”

When asked why Fitzgerald was not invited, the encampment’s media representative said, “He can come around the camp. We can meet directly outside.”

Samson stated, “Members of [Fitzgerald’s] administration (including staff from Student Life) have been in touch with students on a regular basis since the encampment was established on Monday, April 29.” Orio said that she and her team have been at the encampment every day since its establishment. She has since met with a student who was “appointed as the [encampment’s] point of contact for administration,” she said. 

California universities who have established encampments include the University of California Los Angeles, the University of Southern California and the University of California San Diego, among others. While the schools listed have had arrests and violent encounters with police, the encampment
at USF has remained peaceful and has resulted in no arrests as of May 6. Photo by Samantha Avila Griffin/SF Foghorn.

What’s next? 

Samson stated, “We will be communicating to student organizers in the days ahead.” 

On May 3, Orio’s staff received “an email on Friday from USF People’s University,” she stated. Organizers sent the administration their five demands and asked for a response by Wednesday May 8 before 5 p.m. “We did respond to the email that included the demands and we are working on meeting the Wednesday 5pm deadline,” Orio stated. The response deadline is after this publication has gone to print. We will update this story online should the Foghorn receive an update. 

The encampment’s media representative said, “I want to emphasize that…we are here indefinitely until each demand is met.” 

This is a breaking story. The Foghorn will continue to report on developments to these demands in the fall semester. Should any breaking news occur in the following weeks, we will make an update to our Instagram @sffoghorn.  

UPDATE: On May 8, after the time of print, Fitzgerald visited the “People’s University” and spoke with organizers. Later the same day he sent out an email to the USF community responding to the demands. It can be read here

Editor’s notes: Two members of the Foghorn’s editorial staff were involved with the encampment at the time of our reporting on this story, from Apr. 29 to May 6. They had no access to reporting or editing of the story; the publication of this article on May 9 is their first time reading it. 

Organizer Remi Brandli is a Foghorn deputy writer. She is interviewed in this piece due to her intense involvement in the encampment, and she similarly had no involvement whatsoever in the editing or reporting of this story. 

Editor-in-Chief: Megan Robertson, Chief Copy Editor: Sophia Siegel, News Editor: Niki Sedaghat, Sports Editor: Chase Darden, Scene Editor: Inés Ventura

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