U of M officials meet with pro-Palestinian protest organizers; buildings closed a 3rd day

Students and supporters take part in a rally
Students and supporters take part in a pro-Palestinian rally outside Northrop Auditorium on Monday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Updated: 4:26 p.m.

Organizers of the protest encampment on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus met with university leaders on Wednesday. Both sides described the talks as positive, but didn’t announce any concrete outcomes as the encampment remained in place on Northrop Mall.

Buildings along the mall remained closed for a third day Wednesday amid the ongoing anti-war protests.

Pro-Palestinian protesters are calling on the U of M to cut financial and other ties with companies and institutions that have links to the Israeli military, among other demands.

Interim University President Jeff Ettinger spoke with reporters after Wednesday morning’s meeting and said the conversation was “constructive.”

“The meeting had originally been scheduled to be a half-hour. Instead, we went an hour and a half because we were engaged in good conversation,” he said. “Both groups are gonna kind of go back and talk to other folks and there’ll be more news on it later.”

Ettinger didn’t offer any further details on what was discussed.

Students who took part also described the talks as positive. Omar Aly, a leader with Students for Justice in Palestine, said protest organizers are wary of empty promises — and said the encampment will continue until protesters see guarantees from U of M leadership.

“And they understand that. And ... they’ve seen that the more suppression, the more people come out,” Aly said. “It backfires on them. So they understand that now. So I think, yeah, we’re here until we have something that we can work with.”

Merlin Van Alstine with Students for a Democratic Society said this week marked the first time that university leaders have reached out to students who have been calling for divestment for months.

“It’s really been this encampment that’s made them take notice of us,” Van Alstine said.

Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday afternoon that he’s monitoring the situation closely.

“I think our students in many cases have, again, certainly have the right to express their First Amendment rights. But we also have a responsibility to make sure that public safety and others are kept safe. And I think what we've seen across the country, those have crossed somewhat of a line. And I think we defer to the University of Minnesota and the leadership that they are going to show,” Walz told reporters.

When asked by reporters, Ettinger didn’t say whether there are any plans to clear the protest encampment.

He did say there are no plans to cancel any commencement activities in the days ahead. Nearly 20 commencement events are scheduled on the Twin Cities campus over the next two weeks.

Campus buildings around Northrop Mall that remained closed Wednesday included Coffman Student Union, Northrop Memorial Auditorium, the Weisman Art Museum and several academic and lab buildings. Other buildings on the East Campus were accessible only with U Cards.

Monday was the last day of classes at the U. Tuesday and Wednesday were scheduled study days ahead of final exams that start Thursday.

The building closures started Monday afternoon. The university’s decision to close the buildings amid the protests drew criticism from unions representing graduate assistants and employees who work in facilities management and food service, who have been affected by the closures.

The unions called the closures “an overreaction on the part of administration,” and said they’ve caused graduate assistants to be locked out of their offices and laboratories. The unions also said some food service workers and custodians are losing out on pay while buildings are closed.

The closures also drew concern and criticism from some students not involved in the protests, who noted that Walter Library in particular is used as a study spot by a lot of U students — who now can’t access it just as final exams are set to begin.

“I think that everybody should have the freedom to protest if they want to — it’s freedom of speech, it’s why the First Amendment’s there,” student Marko Mirkovic told MPR News. “But I think that once it starts impacting individuals around you in a negative way, I think that there needs to be some consideration for that as well.”

University officials posted a list of alternate study spaces for students who usually go to Walter Library or the U’s Mathematics Library, which is also affected by the closures.

Protest organizer Aly said he has appreciated the diversity of experiences in the encampment including a Passover Seder, visits from Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and Minneapolis City Council member Robin Wonsley, performances from Indigenous groups, and Muslim prayers. 

"We brought the community that the U dreams of," Aly said. "A lot of people said they feel safe inside of the encampment, but soon as they step out of it, they don't feel safe anymore. So it really shows the community that this encampment has built.”

The nationwide campus protests are happening in response to Israel’s offensive in Gaza after Hamas launched a deadly attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7. Militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. Vowing to stamp out Hamas, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the Health Ministry there.

The Associated Press and MPR News reporter Ellie Roth contributed reporting.

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