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Hillary Clinton Returns to Wellesley, but the Homecoming Is More Complicated

Hillary Clinton returned on Saturday to her alma mater, Wellesley College, to celebrate the opening of a new research and study center that bears her name, more than half a century after she graduated and set off on the path that would make her its most famous alumna.

She was met, as ever, by Wellesley faculty, students and alumnae who see her as a rock star, a kind of campus demi-deity who forever elevated the status of this small liberal arts college west of Boston.

But as Mrs. Clinton moderated a panel on “democracy at a crossroads” at the new center’s inaugural summit, a group of student protesters outside chanted and raised signs objecting to her presence, an angry display of the more critical way many in the latest generation of Wellesley women view her legacy.

Near the end of the panel, a student attendee inside the event stood and started shouting, accusing Mrs. Clinton of indifference to violence against Palestinians.

“We’re having a discussion,” Mrs. Clinton told the woman, who was escorted out of the hall by college staff members. “I’m perfectly happy to meet you after this event and talk with you.”

Protesters who gathered on campus Friday and Saturday to show their disregard for Mrs. Clinton, a former first lady, U.S. senator, secretary of state and Democratic Party nominee for president, declined to speak to reporters or identify the group or groups behind the demonstrations. “Do not talk to the cops, do not talk to the press,” a protest leader with a bullhorn reminded them Saturday morning.

As she has moved through her polarizing, high-achieving career, Mrs. Clinton, 76, has frequently found herself on the receiving end of protests. At Columbia University, where she began teaching a class called “Inside the Situation Room” last fall, protesters gathered outside her first lectures to register their objections to some of her past actions as secretary of state.

But Wellesley has long been a safe space for her to return to her roots and find reliable support. She spoke at the college’s commencement in May 2017, six months after she lost the presidency to Donald J. Trump, delivering a speech that railed against his “assault on truth and reason” without mentioning his name — and one in which she also reassured her heartbroken alma mater that she was “doing OK,” even though “things didn’t exactly go the way I planned.”

The overall reception on Saturday was decidedly more mixed. Signs hoisted at the protests appeared to respond to Mrs. Clinton’s statements in recent months opposing a cease-fire agreement in the Israel-Hamas war. “Hillary for Women Unless They’re Palestinian,” read one. “Hillary, Hillary, you’re a liar; we demand a cease-fire,” protesters chanted as summit attendees filed into the Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall. Most of those demonstrating wore medical masks to partially obscure their faces; several were draped in the black-and-white kaffiyehs that have become symbolic of the pro-Palestinian movement.

After the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, Mrs. Clinton spoke out against a proposed cease-fire, arguing that it could empower Hamas and fuel more violence, a position in conflict with the liberal wing of her party. She has stressed, in recent TV appearances, that a cease-fire was already in place last October, until Hamas violated it, and has said that those calling for another cease-fire do not understand Hamas or the history of the region.

Those statements alienated many current students at Wellesley, whose views have shifted to the left since the college rallied behind Mrs. Clinton’s run for president eight years ago, said Lawrence Rosenwald, a retired English professor who taught there from 1980 to 2022.

Mr. Rosenwald recalled participating in a campus protest against Mrs. Clinton 20 years ago, when she was a senator from New York and had voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. Even in that moment of division, he said, the institution’s deep pride in her was felt.

“It was a strange sort of protest, with a lot of affection mixed in with the opposition,” he said. “Both were genuine.”

On campus Saturday, several students not attending the Clinton summit, or the protest of it, expressed appreciation for the protesters’ vocal critique.

“Just because she’s a well-known alum, it doesn’t mean we need to hold her up as perfect,” said Maura Whalen, 18, a first-year student from New Jersey.

At Wellesley, as at other campuses around the country, painful tensions emerged in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. When some Wellesley faculty members asked the college’s president, Paula A. Johnson, to state publicly last year that criticism of Israel was not antisemitism, she refused, citing the risk that “anti-Israel and anti-Zionist speech” could create a hostile environment for Jewish students.

Some Jewish students had already complained about a campus email, sent by student resident assistants at one dorm, that said there should be “no space, no consideration and no support for Zionism” at Wellesley. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation of antisemitism at Wellesley in November, one of dozens of similar inquiries launched by the government since the war began.

Yet for all the unrest, some faculty members have been troubled that they have not seen more student protests. A professor who in February helped start a Wellesley chapter of Faculty for Justice in Palestine told the student newspaper, The Wellesley News, one reason for creating the group was to help make students feel safer speaking out.

On Saturday, the empowerment strategy seemed to be working, as dozens of students braved the raw April morning, in scattered showers and temperatures in the 30s, to gather outside the summit. Anticipating that some protesters might attend the event, college staff members handed out yellow fliers to those taking seats, warning them that “heckling, shouting and other disruptive behavior is not allowed,” and that they could be charged with honor code violations.

Ironically, their target, Mrs. Clinton, had been revered by many of her own Wellesley classmates for boldly speaking out against an establishment politician of her own era, U.S. Senator Edward W. Brooke, after he delivered the commencement address at their graduation in 1969.

The first senior to deliver a graduation speech in Wellesley’s history, the young Hillary Rodham, a political science major, was so troubled by the senator’s emphasis on modest goals and his concern about protest as “counterproductive disruption” that she began her own address with a blunt critique of his — shocking some listeners but receiving a standing ovation from her class.

“We’re not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest,” she said.

At Wellesley, which enrolls about 2,500 students, the new Hillary Rodham Clinton Center for Citizenship, Leadership and Democracy will advance her earliest ideals, with its focus on preparing “the next generation of civic leaders and change-making citizens.” It will host faculty research across disciplines, a “civic action lab” for students and an annual spring summit to grapple with critical global issues.

Panelists at the inaugural summit included Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate; Chelsea Miller, co-founder of Freedom March NYC; and Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. More than 400 people attended in person; 200 more logged into a livestream.

Mrs. Clinton, seated in a plush white armchair on a stage bathed in lavender light, voiced concern at the summit about recent regression in women’s rights around the world after a period of steady progress. “It felt like an upward trajectory,” she said, “and then these forces began to rise up and push back.”

Kayla Brand, 22, a Wellesley senior, said she was excited to hear from Mrs. Clinton, and grateful for her long advocacy for the rights of women, children and the L.G.B.T.Q. community. She said she was saddened by the protests, and her sense that the energy spent yelling at Mrs. Clinton could be channeled into more productive work.

“I appreciate her legacy, and I think she’s helped a lot of people on this campus,” said Ms. Brand, a computer science major from California. “And I also hope for peace in the region, for both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Patricia Berman and Tracy Gleason, the faculty co-directors of the new Clinton Center, said it was difficult to see student protesters struggling with global pain and violence. But they also saw the protests as one thread of the hard conversation they hope to foster.

“Our goal is for students to use their voices, but also to open their hearts and minds to other perspectives,” Ms. Gleason said.

Mr. Rosenwald, the longtime professor, said he believes that students’ pride in Mrs. Clinton endures, even if it is more complicated than in a simpler past.

“Wellesley students are activists,” he said. “They also understand how hard it is for women to get to where she is.”

Sarah Mervosh, Vimal Patel and Maya Shwayder contributed reporting.

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