Friday, April 19, 2024

Students gather to demonstrate after MSU board meeting is moved online

December 15, 2023
Students march from the Hannah Administration Building, protesting MSU's investment in Israeli aid on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.
Students march from the Hannah Administration Building, protesting MSU's investment in Israeli aid on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. —

Students at Michigan State University had been anticipating their chance to address administration at this month’s Board of Trustees meeting on a number of issues facing the community: the university’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, the reopening of classrooms that were the site of the February mass shooting and recent instances of racial discrimination.

But a last-minute decision to move that meeting online halted their opportunity to voice their concerns face-to-face with university trustees

Several student groups, including Students United for Palestinian Rights, Hurriya, Arab Cultural Society, Young Communist League and Black Students’ Alliance instead took matters into their own hands, spreading the word for an in-person, student-led session.

The students met at 7:30 a.m. Friday in the MSU administration building, the time and place the board meeting was originally supposed to take place

The sun still rising, a small crowd began to form in the lobby. One administrator asked them if they were there for the board meeting

“Kind of,” Jesse Estrada White, an organizer of climate activist group Sunrise MSU, said. When asked if he knew it was moved to virtual, he explained that their presence was more to “make a statement.”

A few students began to unfold a large canvas. Two office workers stood watching the scene from behind the glass of the Office of the Registrar

“TRUSTEES: DIVEST NOW,” it read, a reference to the $236,114 MSU has invested in Israeli aid. The money has drawn criticism from pro-Palestinian groups, who say MSU should cease funding of the country following the Israeli Defense Forces’ assaults on Gaza. 

On Oct. 7, the militant group Hamas attacked Israeli towns, killing about 1,200 and taking civilians hostage. Since then, the Israeli Defense Force has attacked the Gaza Strip, killing more than 17,700 and displacing civilians, according to AP.

MSU spokesperson Mark Bullion said that while MSU does own U.S. treasury bonds that were issued to fund Israeli aid, “the university purchased these bonds in March 2023, well before the current conflict.” 

By 8 a.m., the group was setting up a projector it planned to use to livestream the meeting. A police officer arrived on the scene as the group decided to take its demonstration to the fourth floor, to the office of the trustees

In the office, White and other students unrolled a long piece of paper across the floor and handed markers to attendees. 

“Stop funding war,” one message read. “Divest from Israel and weapons manufacturers,” said another.

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Students write messages on a roll of paper in the Office of Trustees on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

“The war has taken a serious turn, it’s a humanitarian crisis,” mechanical engineering senior Yusuf Abbas told the State News. “I think institutions of higher education have a duty to actually step forward and … stand up to injustice.”

Abbas attended the student-led session to call on the university to better support Palestinian students such as himself. But he said his calls for action are a part of a larger feeling of discontent with university leaders. 

“At the end of the day, the Board of Trustees and the administration has repeatedly shown that they’re unable and unwilling to be transparent with those they are basically in charge of,” Abbas said. “It’s not just students. It’s not just Palestinian students. It’s African American students. It’s the victims of Larry Nassar.”

A group of sister survivors, some of the hundreds of survivors of disgraced ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar’s abuses, were preparing to address the trustees via Zoom.

They had been surprised that morning by a last-minute addition to the agenda: a vote on the thousands of long-withheld documents relating to MSU’s handling of Nassar's sexual abuse

Melissa Hudecz, a sister survivor, addressed the trustees during the public comment on items germane to the agenda section of the meeting

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Surrounded by posters reading, “The truth — set it free,” “Hear us!” and “End #RapeCulture MSU,” Hudecz again called on trustees to release the documents. She said the agenda item could be a “significant moment” for survivors like herself, if the board voted yes. 

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POSSE leader Valerie von Frank gives remarks on the virtual Board of Trustees meeting on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

Meanwhile, in the office, students were writing their last messages on the paper. Palestinian flags and posters were being packed up as the students prepared to march to the Student Services Building

A police officer had told them earlier that a space had been reserved in the basement of the building for the students to watch the board meeting on a university projector. Not only that, but some attendees had heard that the trustees would meet them there.

“No justice, no peace!” they chanted on the march northeast.

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Students march from the Hannah administration building to the Student Services Building, protesting MSU's investment in Israeli aid on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

Hudecz and the other sister survivors joined them, listening close to the Zoom for the vote to begin

But despite the promises, the group arrived to an empty room

Jack MacQuaig, a social relations and policy junior, said MSU leadership had been leading them “on a wild goose chase.” 

“They decided to hold the meeting online, very clearly to not have to deal with any of the public,” MacQuaig said. “Then, last night, very last minute, they told us that they might be willing to meet with us here, in this building, in this room … Now we’re in an empty room.”

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Students attend the Board of Trustees meeting on Zoom on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

MacQuaig joined the group in support of divestment from Israel and to advocate for a ceasefire. But he echoed the lack of support for university leadership that Abbas did. 

“It seems like any calls for progress on this campus die,” MacQuaig said. “The university deserves governance that actually represents the people who live, learn and work here.”

One of those calls — that had been years in the running — was about to be answered

As the group settled in, trustee Dan Kelly introduced the vote on the Nassar documents. The sister survivors quickly gathered around the monitor. Wearing their signature teal, the women put their arms around one another’s shoulders

To the survivors' surprise, each of the eight trustees voted yes.

The survivors simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief. They embraced and the room applauded.

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Survivors embrace after the Board of Trustees voted to release the thousands of documents relating to disgraced ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar.

Then a student received word that two trustees — board chair Rema Vassar and trustee Dennis Denno — were on the first floor, attending the Zoom in an otherwise empty conference room and they were invited to join them. 

The group packed into the room, holding their posters and signs and sat around the trustees.

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Students and board chair Rema Vassar and trustee Dennis Denno tune into the Board of Trustees meeting via Zoom on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

When it came time for public comment, Abbas got the chance to read a prepared statement into the Zoom — and to the fourth of the board seated across from him. 

Abbas called on the university to acknowledge that the violence in the Middle East is not new; his great-grandfather had been killed by an Israeli soldier in what is now Northern Israel. He asked MSU leaders to give more established support to Palestinian students and to release a statement acknowledging the death of Tariq Thabet, a former Humphrey Fellow at MSU who was killed by an Israeli bombing in Central Gaza City. 

Angelika Martinez-McGhee, a sister survivor, said she felt encouraged by the words of the public speakers

“To every student, faculty and victim, remember these words: My faith is fighting for you,” Martinez-McGhee said. “And God will deliver you, just as he has delivered us.”

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