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The Dickinsonian

The student news site of Dickinson College.

The Dickinsonian

The student news site of Dickinson College.

The Dickinsonian

Free Gaza Dickinson encampment packs up: Looking back on its goals

For over a week, Dickinson students on Britton Plaza protested ongoing Israeli actions in the war in Gaza, in solidarity with other college protests around the country. The students were demanding that Dickinson remove Michael Smerconish as the commencement speaker, reveal the college’s financial ties to Israel and create a scholarship fund for Palestinian students. After Smerconish was removed as commencement speaker on May 4, the encampment began packing up later that day.

Dozens of students created an encampment on Britton Plaza in the center of campus, setting up lawn chairs, tents, signs and banners with a range of messages supporting the Palestinian cause. 

“We’re here in peace and entirely based on non violence, with three main demands,” said Anna Nasser ‘25, a religion major.

“First, we’d like to ask that Michael Smerconish, who has said Arabophobic, Islamophobic, and generally racist things be uninvited as our commencement speaker for graduation this year.” Nasser continued saying, “second, our demand is that there is financial transparency, and if that transparency reveals that we have any financial ties to Israel, companies that fund Israel or the IDF, we cut those ties. Currently, as a private institution, we don’t have transparency.”

“​​And third, many students know that we have a scholarship for Ukrainian students to come and be able to have education here. We’re asking for the same thing for Palestinian students. And just, I believe, last week all of the universities in Gaza were destroyed, so there’s no longer any form of higher education easily available to Palestinians. So we’re asking for funding to help make that readily available,” said Nasser. 

Smerconish recently responded to an op-ed in this publication calling for his removal as commencement speaker on his podcast, “Headlines from the Newsletter.” He criticized the author’s use of his 2004 book, “Flying Blind”, as evidence of anti-Arab views, but doubled down on the book’s message. He said on the “…my hunch is I will probably stand behind every single word in the book.” He has since been disinvited as commencement speaker after a message was sent to the Dickinson community by the President’s Office on Saturday, May 4.

Ella Layton ’26, who co-wrote the email sent to faculty and the primary writer of the protester’s demands said, “I understand the demands are difficult financially but if the five Ukrainian students were able to come here on full scholarships, why can’t that happen for Palestinian students.” The Ukraine-specific scholarship was funded last year by a $2 million from Sam Rose ’58, an alumnus with family ties to the nation. 

On April 30, President Jones commended the students for protesting peacefully, in comparison with some encampments at other universities, and described the protesters as embodying Dickinson’s values. 

“Dickinson College is proud of our tradition of fostering free speech and dissent through engaging in the liberal arts and sciences. Our mission is to educate students who go on to live meaningful lives of engaged global citizenship. As long as demonstrations do not interfere with the educational mission of the college, or place the safety of our community at risk, we welcome peaceful dialogue and respectfully expressed differences of opinion,” said Craig Layne, Director of Media Relations. 

Layne did not respond directly to questions about student demands. 

“Most of the faculty has shown support, coming over to the encampment and talking to students. However there is definitely faculty that don’t support the encampment or are not pro-Palestinian, who have given negative feedback in emails to professors who have been supporting the protests,” said Layton. 

Layton said, “Administration has been cooperative and also open [to] email communications.” In particular, “Tony Boston, George Stroud, and Reene Cramer have all come over to talk to us, although President Jones has not yet done so.”

When asked about how administration responded to their demands Layton said, “they were most hesitant about changing the commencement speaker.” 

Cramer also told protestors,  “none of the College’s investments fund the Israeli defensive forces.” Layton said, “It felt like a very easy, one sentence answer and it was as if we just had to take their word for it. They didn’t show us any budget and although they have that right as a private institution, it seems as if they did it to placate us. They’re not being transparent, therefore that demand has not fully been met.” 

When asked about possible College investments in Israeli defense companies, Vice President of Finance and Administration David Walker said, “The college has performed an analysis of our endowment investments and confirmed that we have no direct investments in Israeli defense companies in the DC investment portfolio.” 

Similar encampments in solidarity with Gaza have been set up on university and college campuses across the U.S. The Dickinson protestors’ demands mirror many of these other demonstrations; the common request is for schools to divest fromIsrael. 

The protest at Dickinson has remained peaceful. One protestor said no student has made any negative comments. However, cars drove by yelling hate speech such as “terrorist,” “Nazi,” “death to Palestine” and various slurs. 

“We do not feel safe. Students here having that kind of rhetoric present on our campus. Many students who are Arab or Muslim do not want that [Smerconish] as their commencement [speaker,] do not want that to be their last memory of Dickinson College,” said Nasser. 

More than 60 similar encampments have been counted throughout the U.S. There has been no police presence at the Dickinson encampment, though over 2,000 students have been arrested at colleges like Columbia University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California. Police used gas, pepper balls, stun guns and rubber bullets on Emory University students as police swiftly moved to clear an encampment there.  

So far, only the University of Southern California has canceled commencement due to the demonstrations. Individual colleges at USC will still hold commencements but will limit the number of visitors allowed per student to 4 people. Similarly, the University of Michigan will hold commencement, but will prohibit students from carrying banners during the ceremony or protesting outside of designated  areas. 

Students with Free Gaza Dickinson also protested at the Board of Trustees meeting Friday, repeating their demands that Smerconish not be honored at the college’s commencement. 

Magda Siekert, Senior Lecturer in Middle East Studies, , said,“I’m very proud of our student body as they represent Dickinson’s spirit. They have abided by the Dickinson code, showing compassion and respect.”

She also praised the administration’s response. “Some other universities such as NYU, called in the NYPD which in my opinion was a mistake,” she said. The mission of the College is ensuring freedom of expression and safety and in my opinion Dickinson has being doing a good job at that.”

She said, “It’s the students’ show. My advice to them was always have your own voice, whether its by writing articles or writing a list of demands, find your voice and protect it. It’s important that students and the administration engage in conversation, maybe not all the demands will be met but it’s important that it happens because at the center of it lies academic freedom.”

Blessing Agbonlaho, Agustina Curadelli, Disma Ferrante, and Brock Overlander contributed reporting to this article

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