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UMass student gov votes 'no confidence' in Reyes, as McGovern says protest arrests 'very concerning'

Hundreds of students gather on campus, Wednesday, May 8, 2024, to protest the war in Gaza, UMass Amherst's ties to military contractors, and the university's decision to order police to clear an encampment the night before. Police arrested more than 130 protesters.
Nirvani Williams
Hundreds of students gather on campus, Wednesday, May 8, 2024, to protest the war in Gaza, UMass Amherst's ties to military contractors, and the university's decision to order police to clear an encampment the night before. Police arrested more than 130 protesters.

Members of the Student Government Association at the University of Massachusetts Amherst voted "with an overwhelming majority" Wednesday evening to express "no confidence" in Chancellor Javier Reyes.

The vote came one day after Reyes ordered police to take apart a protest encampment on campus and disperse those assembled. Police clashed with protesters gathered in solidarity with Palestine, leading to 132 arrests, the university confirmed Wednesday night. Of those, UMass estimated 70 were students at the university and six were faculty.

"The UMass Student Government Association on behalf of the undergraduate students, affirm that they have no confidence in the leadership of Chancellor Reyes," the SGA wrote on Instagram.

Prior to the vote, Reyes released a statement saying he had spoken with many on campus Wednesday, discussing "the events of last night and the previous encampment, along with processes and policies related to student discipline."

Reyes asked student government leaders and the Faculty Senate to call meetings where he and other school leaders "can engage in dialogue and answer questions about this challenging episode."

"I know how challenging these events have been for everyone. Safety, wellbeing, and a sense of belonging are paramount for our community’s ability to thrive, and I recognize that there is work to do as we restore trust with those who feel harmed by the university’s actions," Reyes said in the statement.

Support from Reyes' bosses, Gov. Healey

In response to the "no confidence" vote, a university spokesperson released words of support for Reyes from UMass Board of Trustees Chair Stephen Karam and Marty Meehan, the president of the UMass system.

"The circumstances on the Amherst campus are in no way isolated and are part of a national trend taking place on college and university campuses across the country," Meehan said. "Chancellor Reyes and his team have engaged in good faith discussions, offered meaningful paths to a resolution, and done everything within their power to engage sincerely and protect students’ rights to free speech.

On Thursday, Gov. Maura Healey also defended Reyes, in an interview with GBH News. Healey said Reyes has her support.

"I understand and appreciate that there is a right to protest and to give voice, certainly. But it's also clear that there's no place for hate or for violence or threats of violence on our college campuses."

UMass has not pointed to any incidents of violence among the protesters or specific threats that warranted involving law enforcement, a step Reyes described in a statement Tuesday as "the absolute last resort."

McGovern: 'You don't arrest peaceful protesters'

Earlier Wednesday, hundreds of students gathered again, outside the student union, to reaffirm their opposition to the war in Gaza, the university's ties to military contractors, and the arrests the night before. Students for Justice in Palestine, an organizer of both protests, circulated a petition online calling for Reyes' resignation.

At the same time, the five largest labor unions representing campus staff and faculty criticized the decision to bring in police, as did the ACLU of Massachusetts and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern.

McGovern on Thursday morning told NEPM's The Fabulous 413 that he has received a lot of calls from concerned constituents. He said he has spoken with administrators at UMass about the situation, but not Reyes directly.

"I expressed my concern about what happened. I regret that police were brought onto the campus and all the arrests that happened. I'm a strong believer in the right to peaceful protest. It's a hallmark of our history," McGovern said. "And I'm a believer that at this very tenuous and challenging moment, we have to be about listening to one another. We have to be about letting people in rather than shutting people out. But it also means that you don't arrest peaceful protesters."

McGovern, a Worcester Democrat whose district includes Amherst, acknowledged he did not know all the details that led to the arrests.

"The university has their own rationale for doing what they did, including concerns about public safety and on and on and on and on. But ... to the best of my knowledge, these protesters were not engaged in any violent activities. They were not disrupting or interrupting peoples' ability to get to class or take their final exams," he said. "I find the whole thing very concerning."

McGovern said he also protested while he was a college student — even at his own graduation, when his alma mater, American University, chose conservative economist George Gilder to speak.

But the congressman, who spoke at Reyes' inauguration as UMass chancellor in late April, had encouraging words for the campus leader.

"I'm excited about Chancellor Reyes as chancellor. I think he will do a good job," McGovern said. "I just regret that this was kind of the first thing out of the box."

Graduation speaker withdraws

As a result of the university's actions, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead said he is withdrawing as this year's graduation speaker at UMass Amherst.

In a social media post Thursday, Whitehead said he had been looking forward to being on campus.

"I visited two years ago and everyone was awesome. My nephew graduated from there and got a great education. But calling the cops on peaceful protesters is a shameful act," Whitehead wrote. "I have to withdraw as your commencement speaker. I give all my best wishes and congratulations to the class of '24 and pray for the safety of the Palestinian people, the return of the hostages, and an end to this terrible war.”

Whitehead had been scheduled to speak at the undergraduate commencement ceremony on May 18.

A UMass spokesperson said in an email: "We understand Mr. Whitehead’s position and regret that he will not be addressing the Class of 2024. The ceremony will proceed without a commencement speaker this year."

NEPM's Nirvani Williams, Kari Njiiri, Elizabeth Román and Monte Belmonte, as well as our colleagues at GBH News, contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The license for NEPM’s main radio signal is held by UMass Amherst. In addition, some NEPM employees are in the Professional Staff Union at the university.

Updated: May 9, 2024 at 4:09 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include comments from Gov. Maura Healey and author Colson Whitehead.
Sam Hudzik has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Media since 2013. He manages a team of about a dozen full- and part-time reporters and hosts.