A group of 18 University of South Florida students started their promised hunger strike on Monday, saying they don’t plan to give up until USF severs financial ties with companies supporting Israel.

The students also demanded that USF President Rhea Law state that genocide is occurring in Gaza, where more than 30,000 people have died from bombing and raids during Israel’s monthslong war against Hamas.

The students, holding signs, silently filed into the back of the second-floor ballroom where USF’s board of trustees was meeting Monday.

Before the meeting started, board chairperson Will Weatherford addressed the students, who previously had been advised against participating in a hunger strike for health reasons.

“USF investments are guided by our mission or fiduciary responsibilities in the state and federal law,” Weatherford told them. “Therefore, the university’s investments are managed based on performance to produce benefits for the entire university regardless of political viewpoints or disagreements.”

He added that Florida laws don’t allow USF “to make decisions about vendors or investments based on political viewpoints or opinions.”

“We cannot select individual stocks for companies or investment,” Weatherford said. “Instead, the university works with fund managers to invest in a variety of asset classes, which include companies and most major industries. These professional managers are experts in the field and make good investments in the long-term financial interests of this university and its employees.”

The protesters said they didn’t accept Weatherford’s explanation, and a tense exchange between him and the group ensued.

Alina Atiq, a senior majoring in philosophy, spoke of the civilian casualties and children who have suffered violence in Gaza.

She called USF’s explanation “a flimsy excuse” and pointed to other universities outside Florida that have divested. Members of the group have demanded that USF no longer invest in companies including Northrup Grumman Corp., Boeing and others they say are supplying Israel’s war effort.

“This is a matter of human lives,” Atiq said. “There are no more functioning hospitals in North Gaza. You are complicit through your investments, and the aforementioned corporations have been raking in billions of dollars by selling these weapons, which means you are profiting from these atrocities.”

Weatherford reiterated that the board does not directly invest in any corporation.

“Please don’t go on a hunger strike for that because you’d be waiting a long time,” he said. “We don’t actually invest in those businesses.”

Will Mleczko, a USF senior majoring in economics, called that a lie.

“Your starting point of investments are already political when you invest in a genocide,” he said. “And you say you don’t invest in a genocide, but you employ people that do on behalf of the USF.”

Mleczko said the group of students would not be deterred.

“We will starve ourselves,” he said, his voice escalating. “We will die if that’s what it takes to reaffirm the belief and the truth that there is blood on your hands, that there’s complicity on your hands.”

The students have said they will drink water and electrolyte beverages, but plan to forgo all food. Some are fasting for Ramadan, so will only consume liquid between sundown and sunrise.

They said their hunger strike was needed after more than 10 years of asking the university to divest.

In 2013, a referendum on the issue was placed on the student government ballot, then removed. In 2014, a petition to divest garnered 10,000 signatures, but the university told protesters it would not change its investment policy. In 2016, USF’s student government passed a bill in favor of divestment, but it was vetoed by the student body president and vice president.

On Monday, some students asked why Law and Weatherford condemned Hamas after its deadly invasion of Israel on Oct. 7, but have not expressed the same degree of concern for Palestinian deaths in the months that followed.

Isha Modha, a psychology and women and gender studies major, expressed frustration at the university’s response to the hunger strike so far. School officials first issued a cease-and-desist letter to the student organization that initially planned the strike, and when the group later disbanded they called the parents of individual students, hoping to dissuade them.

“Your attempts at censorship show that USF recognizes their complicity in this genocide,” Modha said. “You would much rather try to squash our movement than meet our demands.”

Weatherford again cautioned the group, calling it a “dangerous thing” they were embarking on.

“I appreciate you all being here,” he said. “I appreciate and respect your voice. And I respect your desire and your passion for something so serious as this, that you would go to such drastic measures. But I would also just tell you, as the board chair, to be very cautious and very careful.”

He said no one on the board was driving the agenda in the Middle East and reiterated his own position.

“When I look at this issue and the complexity of it, which war typically is, I think it’s possible for people to have the belief that Israel has the right to defend itself, while also having compassion for the Palestinian people,” he said. “This is a very complex issue.”

“No it’s not!” one protester yelled as the group booed before being escorted out by university police. One protester was trespassed and charged with a misdemeanor.

Weatherford addressed the protesters again at the end of the meeting, though they had left.

“This university apolitical,” he said. “We respect all sides of this debate. 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. We certainly don’t invest that capital where people’s pensions at stake and our foundation is at stake based on political outcomes.”

He encouraged anyone who knew the students or their parents to tell them “they’re going in the wrong direction.”

“There are more productive ways to have their voice to be heard,” he said.


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