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Penn Trustees Meeting Is Cut Short After Students Protest Over War in Gaza

A board of trustees meeting at the University of Pennsylvania was disrupted on Friday by a group of pro-Palestinian students protesting the school’s involvement with Israel, prompting the trustees to adjourn the meeting about 10 minutes after it started.

Holding up their hands, some painted red to signify blood, the group of about 12 students started to protest shortly after J. Larry Jameson, Penn’s interim president, began addressing the university’s board of trustees. It was his first public meeting with the trustees since taking office in December.

“Endowment transparency now! Divest from genocide!” the students chanted.

The protesters, representing a group called Freedom School for Palestine, said their action was a response to Penn’s relationship with Israel, citing a study-abroad program, a recent faculty trip to Israel and “donations to the I.D.F.,” referring to the Israeli military. A Penn spokesman denied that the university makes donations to the I.D.F.

“We condemn the board of trustees’ support for the genocidal Israeli state, and we call on Penn administration to support Palestinian students, drop disciplinary charges against pro-Palestinian demonstrators and divest from genocide,” the group said in a statement. It added that it was pushing for the university’s $21 billion endowment to rescind investments in Israeli companies or other entities aiding the war in Gaza. It was not clear whether Penn had investments in the country.

The protest on Friday was the latest disturbance buffeting the nation’s top universities since Hamas attacked Israel in October. The campus movement that began as general protests against continuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza has recently shifted its focus to university endowments, with demonstrators demanding that schools pull investments that would support the war.

At Brown University, about 19 students protesting the war waged a hunger strike earlier this year, demanding that its board take up a divestment resolution. The idea behind movements for divestment, which have also historically targeted fossil fuels, tobacco and apartheid in South Africa, is to encourage university endowments to foster the public good and be instruments for change.

But the Penn campus had been roiled even before the war, conflicted over the decision by its former president, M. Elizabeth Magill, to permit a campus Palestinian literary festival last September. With her leadership already under attack, Ms. Magill continued to be the target of criticism after the Gaza war broke out, with Jewish donors, alumni and students questioning what they regarded as tepid statements by her office after the Hamas attack.

Ms. Magill ultimately resigned in December after an appearance on Capitol Hill, where she was grilled over whether a call for genocide on campus would be grounds for discipline. Dr. Jameson, an endocrinologist who formerly served as dean of Penn’s medical school, was named interim president to replace her.

Some Jewish students at Penn have spoken out against campus antisemitism, including Noah Rubin, who told members of Congress on Thursday that the university administration had failed to address his complaints.

The Penn trustees began committee meetings on Thursday, and Friday’s meeting was expected to be the culmination of their work. The Rev. Dr. Charles Lattimore Howard, Penn’s chaplain, kicked off Friday’s meeting with remarks focused on healing after the campus unrest.

“There’s a lot of division in the world, much hate and distrust, lots of uncaring isolation and indifference, lots of zero-sum perspectives,” he said, adding: “But some of our students are trying to remind us of a different way. In small and private ways, they’re trying to understand, or at least humanize the other side.”

Dr. Jameson followed the invocation, beginning his address by commenting on the excitement of students at Penn. “They’re exhilarated to be here. They thrive on the eminent academics, research and work that improves the world around,” he said.

But he was unable to continue, and the upbeat mood quickly shifted as chants erupted, started by a group of students in the audience. Ramanan Raghavendran, the recently appointed chair of the trustees, unsuccessfully made three separate pleas to the students to stop.

Unable to go forward, the board simultaneously approved about 20 resolutions that had been slated for discussion, and then departed the conference room.

After the meeting, a university spokesman issued a statement saying that the disruption violated the school’s code of student conduct and that the students had been referred for disciplinary action.

The Freedom School for Palestine also had staged two other protests — a sit-in at a campus building last fall and a “study in” at Penn’s library in February.

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