UMass launches task force in wake of spring protests, will also review police activity

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

JAVIER REYES

JAVIER REYES

Police arrested more than 130 people attending a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Massachusetts campus the night of May 7.

Police arrested more than 130 people attending a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Massachusetts campus the night of May 7. CONTRIBUTED

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 06-20-2024 3:47 PM

AMHERST — UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes has announced the creation of a Campus Demonstration Policy Task Force and an independent review of police activity on campus following events this spring that led to more than 130 arrests on campus amid protests and encampments against the war in Gaza.

“I recognize that the events of May 7 and 8 were challenging for the entire campus community and raised issues regarding how our community should address future instances of protests and activism,” Reyes wrote in an email to the campus community on Monday. “I remain deeply committed to protecting those rights guaranteed to our community by the First Amendment and the university’s policies and founding values.”

The arrests sparked widespread criticism of Reyes from both students and faculty members, with hundreds rallying in front of the UMass Student Center the day after the arrests to condemn the actions taken by administration. The arrests occurred amid nationwide unrest at college campuses over the war, with arrests also occurring at schools such as Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Reyes wrote that he had met with representatives of the Student Government Association, the Graduate Student Senate and the Rules Committee of the Faculty Senate to review campus policies regarding activism and recommend potential improvements. In addition to May 7-8, students also set up an encampment April 29-30.

The task force will consist of 16 members and be co-chaired by Shelly Perdomo Ahmed, vice chancellor for student affairs  and campus life, and Anthony Paik, a professor of sociology and secretary of the Faculty Senate. Other named members include Farshid Hajir, senior provost, and Jeff Hescock, executive director of environmental health and safety.

Of the remaining members yet to be named, Reyes indicated that one will be a member of the Office of the General Counsel, four would be appointed by the SGA, four appointed by the GSS and three appointed by the Faculty Senate Rules Committee.

The goals of the task force, according to Reyes, will be to review protest policies and guidelines, including land-use policy, picketing code, and demonstration guidelines, and make subsequent recommendations to “appropriate university governing bodies.”

Other goals include making recommendations “based on best practices in higher education,” regarding methods of demonstration-related intervention, including, but not limited to, the deployment of and composition of the Demonstration Response and Safety Team).

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Finally, the task force will make recommendations on how to increase awareness of university policies and First Amendment protections as they apply to on-campus demonstrations.

The Task Force will finalize its recommendations by Aug. 23, and will accept community comments related to the three goals submitted to cdptaskforce@umass.edu before Aug. 8.

In addition, Reyes has asked the state Office of General Counsel to secure a third-party expert to review the events of April 29-30 and May 7-8, including demonstrations and arrests made on the evening of May 7.

The review will be conducted by Ralph Martin, a partner at Boston law firm Prince Lobel. Martin previously served as a senior vice president and general counsel for Northeastern University, and beforee that was a Suffolk County district attorney. A timeline for Martin’s review will be determined following an initial discovery process, Reyes said.

A week after the broad-scale arrests during the breakup of the May protest and in front of the Faculty Senate, Reyes defended the university’s actions in calling police in to halt the demonstration, saying they were “about ensuring the safety and well-being of all the campus,” a statement that was met with laughter and snickers from faculty members.

Several of the people now appointed to the new task force were present at the May 14 meeting. Hajir at the time said that the campus Demonstration Response and Safety Team, formed in February to resolve issues of protest before officers become involved, had been confronted by an extremely large crowd during the May 7 protest and that “a fair amount of rude comments were made toward us,” making it “not possible for anyone to hear.”

Faculty members later issued a vote of no confidence in Reyes on May 20, stating that the chancellor had created an unsafe environment, betrayed core UMass values, and refused responsibility for the harms caused by his actions. Reyes said in response that he would “work to regain the confidence of those faculty, students, and staff who, in the wake of the events of the past two weeks, sent a clear signal that we have work to do as we move toward a just and safe environment for our community.”

Reyes, in his letter to the campus community on Monday, acknowledged that the events of May 7-8 were “challenging for the entire campus community and raised issues regarding how our community should address future instances of protest and activism. I remain deeply committed to protecting those rights guaranteed to our community by the First Amendment and the university’s policies and founding values.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.