About 25 students and faculty members from UMW came out to protest the arrest of UMW students during their peaceful protest on Saturday on campus. (Photo by Suzanne Carr Rossi)

UMW president meets with students to discuss protest arrests

by | Apr 30, 2024 | ALLFFP, Schools & Education, University of Mary Washington

University of Mary Washington President Troy Paino assured a group of students that he plans to meet with Fredericksburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Libby Humphries to ensure that nine of their peers who were arrested for trespassing last weekend as part of a campus protest will not ultimately face criminal charges.  

That was one revelation that came out of a remarkably candid meeting that Paino held with a group of students on Tuesday in a conference room in George Washington Hall, which houses UMW’s administrative offices. 

The Free Press interviewed four students who were present at the meeting and reviewed detailed contemporaneous written notes taken by one student.  

Around 2 p.m., a group of approximately 16 UMW students — the majority of whom were not affiliated with the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine organization — met with Paino, who was accompanied by UMW Provost Tim O’Donnell.  Earlier in the day, a group of approximately 30 UMW students and faculty staged a silent protest by laying flowers at the base of a statue depicting the late civil rights icon James Farmer.

UMW senior Devin Schwers said that early on in Tuesday’s meeting, he asked Paino directly whether the Youngkin administration ordered the arrests of the 12 protesters who refused to leave an encampment on Jefferson Square.  

“He said that the decision to take down the encampment was a decision made on behalf of the [UMW Board of Visitors] and himself and wasn’t the result of outside influence,” Schwers recalled. 

However, at one point during the meeting, Paino showed the students a document outlining the administration’s stance against the student encampments unfolding across the country.  

The document, an email from Deputy Attorney General Rob Bell to State Secretary of Education Amy Rogstad Guidera dated April 26 at 11:41 a.m., reads: “It is the legal position of the office of the Attorney General that setting up a tent or an encampment on university or college property is disruptive of the school’s activities and may violate other administrative policies.  

“The university or college has the authority to refuse to allow such activities and also has the authority to take down any tents that have been set up. The Attorney General will vigorously defend the university or college from any challenge to this authority.” 

During the conversation, which Schwers described as “tense and adversarial,” Paino also revealed that he spoke with Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands on Friday to discuss that institution’s plan for the student encampment in support of Palestinian liberation that had developed simultaneously in Blacksburg.  

Ultimately, both schools decided on the same Friday 8:30 p.m. deadline for student protestors to dismantle the encampments.  

According to the student’s notes, Paino said that he became concerned from a security standpoint after receiving “intelligence” from the state attorney general’s office, the Fredericksburg Police and UMW’s own police force, which currently employs just 13 officers. 

UMW senior Sasha Poletes recalled that Paino said the primary security threat involved the inclusion of non-student community members in the encampment as well as calls by the SJC to grow its numbers over the weekend. 

Poletes said that Paino seemingly “showed remorse” for how Saturday’s events played out. She said Paino also claimed that the arrested students would not face academic suspension or expulsion from UMW and would likely only be assessed a low-level warning for failing to comply with a university order. 

“He came across as sincere and that he knows that the university could’ve responded better,” Poletes said. 

At times, the students said, the conversation took on a philosophical tenor, as Paino articulated his view of civil disobedience as an act with consequences. According to a student’s notes, the university president even invoked the words of Martin Luther King Jr. on the topic.

Senior Ben Schwartz described Paino’s ability to maintain composure as “admirable” given the temperature of the room. 

“It was 16 people arguing against one person,” Schwartz said.  

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