Student protesters disrupt University of Utah graduation while faculty call for school to address police violence

Meanwhile, students held another rally at the U.’s main graduation ceremony. President Taylor Randall said they did not “have the right to disrupt this celebration.”

University of Utah faculty are demanding that future student protests “not be met with police violence” after officers in riot gear were ordered to tear into a peaceful rally on campus this week.

In a new letter addressed to U. President Taylor Randall that went online hours before the school’s main graduation ceremony Thursday, the more than 120 faculty who so far have signed on say they “vehemently object” to the “unprovoked and unwarranted” use of force against students and community members during a pro-Palestine rally Monday. They want formal assurance that kind of reaction won’t happen again.

They ask that police officers not be present at any peaceful protests at the U. from now on.

That didn’t take hold immediately, though, as tens of officers surrounded protesters again when they returned to rally outside of graduation later in the evening at the Huntsman Center. And campus police immediately arrested one individual, zip-tying her arms behind her back as she shouted. A school spokesperson said the arrest was for the woman’s involvement in the Monday rally, and she will be screened for failing to disperse, disorderly conduct and trespassing — along with the other 20 organizers who have been arrested.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pro-Palestine supporter is arrested outside the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus during commencement ceremonies on Thursday, May 2, 2024.

“Every time you arrest someone, our movement grows,” one student shouted after officers, as families and graduates in gowns walked past.

The woman who was detained is not affiliated with the U. as either a current student or employee, the school spokesperson said.

The students also brought their protest inside the arena during the ceremony, where several shouted “Free Palestine” and a handful of graduates walked out while Randall was speaking.

Randall paused for a moment during his commencement address about resilience to respond to them. “We certainly hear you, and you have a right to express your viewpoint,” he said. “You do not, however, have the right to disrupt this celebration. This is years of hard academic work of your peers. We’ll give you a moment, but if you continue to protest, we’d ask you to leave or you will be removed.”

Many in the audience cheered at his response as the students supporting Palestine left. Some wore traditional Arab keffiyeh scarves in place of graduation stoles.

The letter from faculty asked that all students involved in the demonstrations on campus — particularly the one on Monday that devolved into violence when police charged forward with plastic shields — be granted amnesty by the school and not face charges.

Additionally, the professors continue: “We request transparency about the role the university administration played in the police response. We call for the university to clarify how, when and why police were directed to act.”

The letter is signed “U of U faculty in solidarity with students.” The Salt Lake Tribune confirmed the authenticity of the letter with multiple faculty members who signed it.

The professors urge Randall to address their concerns immediately and openly, as well as to respond “substantively” to the students’ demands, too, to divest the school’s endowment from companies benefiting in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. They say a committee should be created to study how that can be done.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Taylor Randall speaks during commencement ceremonies at the Huntsman Center on Thursday, May 2, 2024.

In the letter, they also ask for encampments to be allowed on campus for protests as “a valid form of free expression.” They urge Randall to set up a specific “safe and permissible zone” where students can do that.

The faculty mentioned previous camping on campus that was permitted during ESPN’s Gameday celebration, when the school encouraged students to stay overnight in the same place where the protesters set up camp during the pro-Palestine rally in Presidents’ Circle on Monday.

Hundreds of students and community members participated in the Monday rally outside the school’s administration building. Shortly after they started, students set up more than 20 tents on the lawn.

By 11 p.m., more than 100 officers from around Salt Lake County formed a line, forcefully pushing the students down and off campus.

The school has said, and police announced, that free expression is supported, but camping is not permitted on campus, according to Utah law and university policy, and would result in “criminal consequences.” Both students and faculty — many of whom showed up in their graduation robes in support — have also been threatened with suspension or termination for participating.

In their letter, the faculty write that they reject those threats that are “designed to deter free expression.”

More than 70 signed on with their names; nearly 50 signed on anonymously.

Teneille Brown, a professor of law at the U., signed onto the message with her name. She said she doesn’t agree 100% with everything in it, but said officers showing up at a peaceful protest “in riot gear escalated things and was way too militaristic for a university campus.”

She said students were protesting a genocide and should have the right to speak out.

“We have it completely flipped if we think they are the threat, when the existential threat is coming from the powers-that-be that are silently permitting tens of thousands of innocent civilians to be murdered and starved in Gaza,” Brown added.

The ongoing war started when militant group Hamas launched an attack on Israeli citizens on Oct. 7. Israel responded with force. To date, more than 34,000 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis have been killed.

Students across the country have been rallying and creating encampments at their schools to protest the war. It’s happened much like the rallies for schools to divest from Apartheid from South Africa in the 1980s.

At the U., those protests included students building “shanty towns” on campus where they camped out. And it worked. The U. agreed to work toward divestment on the issue in 1986.

But since the protests began, the U. has not directly talked about divestment. A spokesperson has previously referred to a 2021 faculty report that set goals for divesting from gas and oil holdings.

In the fall, faculty at the U. also previously wrote a similar letter in support of the students of Mecha, a campus club largely led by and for students of color. Members of the club were referred to prosecutors by the university after they protested a conservative event on campus that was screening an anti-transgender film. School police say the students were so disruptive the event had to be canceled.

Eight students were charged for disrupting the operation of a school, disorderly conduct and interference with a police officer. Those counts are currently pending in court.

The same club also has been leading the Palestine protests.

The 14 graduates who walked out Thursday, and roughly 50 others who joined them in protest, continued to shout their message. They held signs that said, “Divest from genocide.” They chanted, “For Gaza we will fight. Students of the world unite.” And they advertised “Taylor Randall turned his back on students. Turn your back on Taylor Randall.”

Sisters Monica and Sonia Weglinski, who graduated Thursday, left during Randall’s speech. Both said they were frustrated by those cheering for the president. “It was suffocating,” Sonia said.

Monica attended the massive campus rally Monday. “We can’t ignore what’s happening in the world,” she said.

“He’s supposed to be working for us,” Sonia added about Randall. “But he’s having students arrested. … I’m proud to be a part of this out here.”

Both the students and the faculty in their letter say that Randall’s statement after the Monday rally, where he encouraged free expression but said he would also enforce the law, does not match the school’s actions.

Instead, the professors say, the students are leading the way by speaking out and reflecting what a university education should teach: collaboration, reasoning, creativity and persistence in addressing complex problems.

The faculty wrote: “We urge the university administration to both accept and embrace our campus as a democratic space of peaceful protest.”

—Tribune editor Aaron Falk contributed to this story.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heavy police presence surrounds the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus for commencement ceremonies as demonstrators gather nearby in support of Palestine on Thursday, May 2, 2024.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demonstrators gather in support of Palestine and to defend the right for students to assemble and protest during commencement ceremonies at the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus on Thursday, May 2, 2024.