USF students protest university funds linked to Israel/Hamas war [Updated 3/22/24]

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USF Students engaging in a sit-in protest by the university seal in the Marshall Center. By: Josh Holton (03/18/24)

About 30 students at the University of South Florida protested inside the Board of Trustees meeting at the Tampa campus today. Some of those students began a hunger strike to oppose university investments in companies that are funding Israel’s war with Hamas.

All eyes were on the protest inside the Marshall Student Center, especially after last year one protest led to the arrest of 5 students. Chairman of the Board of Trustees Will Weatherford is a former Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives and was appointed to the board by Governor Ron DeSantis two years ago.

“We do not select individual stocks for companies or investment. Instead, the university contracts with fund managers who invest in a variety of asset classes which include companies and most major industries. These professional managers are experts in their field and make prudent investments in the long term financial interests of this university and its employees separately,”

Separately, Weatherford has his own investment firm called Weatherford Capital whose clients include Open Gov, PayIt, and other tech companies that are involved in tech, government, and municipal agencies. Will Mleczko is a sophomore at USF and majors in economics. He started his hunger strike today to show support for civilian lives lost in Palestine.

“We’re trying to establish that link of solidarity somehow we’re trying to make sure that our university our institutions aren’t complicit in what’s happening over there. So it is just a fraction of what they’re going through. And we all understand that but we’re determined to at least show any level of solidarity we can.”

Weatherford responded to several impassioned students during public comment, and insisted the university does not consider politics.

“We all have our own individual opinions which we’re allowed to have. And they do too. But as an institution. That’s not our role. And we certainly don’t invest the capital, that it where people’s pensions are at stake and our foundation stake based on political outcomes. And so we don’t think that way, don’t operate that way. And we won’t operate that way.”

Students held signs asking USF to divest from companies like Northup Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Hewlett Packard. Mlezcko maintained the action is all about peace.

“We just want to see Jewish people and Arab people living in peace, hopefully, together not separated, because when you’re separated by walls and military checkpoints, you’re not living in peace or living in a police state. So as long as that condition is met, and both peoples can live together peacefully, that’s what we’re aiming for.”

Although Weatherford maintained the apolitical nature of the board, he seemed intent on putting his viewpoint out front as well.

“I think it’s possible for people to have the belief that Israel has the right to defend itself, while also having compassion is while also, while also having compassion for the Palestinian people.” About half a dozen students also held an Israeli flag outside the meeting to show support for their viewpoint, but students holding that flag declined to comment. About 18 students will engage in the hunger strike to underscore their demands for USF to publicly call for a ceasefire and to divest from weapons manufacturers.

Video of protesters entering the Board of Trustees meeting:

Photos from the protest:

 

UPDATE 3/22/24:

The hunger strikers reached their fifth day without food. They say they only consume water and zero-calorie fish oil pills. It’s already having effects on their bodies.

“All of us, we’ve gotten sick to some extent,” Mleczko says. “A lot of people have fainted, a lot of people have just vomited multiple times as their body, kind of, has to adjust.”

The University of South Florida’s attempts to resolve the issue frustrate the student protestors. They think the administration feigns concern to help their public image.

Mleczko explains: “So, even though the Deans have offered to meet with us, they’ve already reaffirmed to us that they can’t do anything about it. So when the Deans are reaching out to us, we recognize that that’s just them doing their job so they can say they tried to talk to us but [we] weren’t willing to.”

On Thursday, the hunger strikers took issue with USF believing a call for divestment is unprecedented in a post on Instagram. They pointed to when the university withdrew investments from 18 South African companies during apartheid. The move came in 1987 under student pressure.

USF declined to comment on events since Monday. The institution reiterated its stance from the board meeting.

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