Internal emails reveal UNH administrators’ desire to quell pro-Palestine ‘encampment’ ahead of graduation

Following 12 arrests at a pro-Palestine protest outside University of New Hampshire's Thompson Hall, protesters gathered again on May 6.

Following 12 arrests at a pro-Palestine protest outside University of New Hampshire's Thompson Hall, protesters gathered again on May 6. JEREMY MARGOLIS—Monitor staff


Monitor staff

Published: 05-22-2024 5:58 PM

A day before a pro-Palestine protest at the University of New Hampshire earlier this month, a staff member in the university’s Office of Student Life passed on to administrators that he got word of a “plan to engage in encampment,” according to an email.

The news – the first sign that the pro-Palestine encampments sweeping the country might soon be heading to UNH’s Thompson Hall Lawn – set off a flurry of communication over the next 24 hours about how to respond, which ultimately rose to the highest levels of the university and New Hampshire state government, according to emails between senior administrators obtained through right-to-know requests.

The dozens of emails reveal previously unreported details about the nature of UNH’s preparation for and heavily-criticized response to the May 1 protest, which involved a state police presence and the arrest of 12 people. The emails, along with a previously released university timeline of events, provide additional information on just how closely the office of Governor Chris Sununu was tracking the potential for an encampment in New Hampshire and interacting with university administrators, including President James Dean in the days and hours leading up to the protest.

The communications also show that following the protest, university administrators, including Dean, privately argued that the planned encampment was led by “outside groups,” despite scant evidence to support the claim.

Lead up to the protest

At about noon on the morning of the protest, the day after administrators received a tip about a potential encampment, Dean of Students Michael Blackman confirmed to other administrators that UNH would have zero tolerance for tents and would call in the university police, which he referred to as UPD.

“If anyone starts to violate our rules (e.g. set up tents, enter a building, etc.), UPD will work to remove them as quickly as possible,” Blackman wrote.

President Dean was not included on that email, but a message to an English professor after the protest made clear his desire to thwart a long-term encampment: “Our choice was to keep this from happening or to be in the situation of UCLA or Columbia: what to do about 50 tents indefinitely in the middle of campus, as we approach graduation.”

An hour after Blackman’s email, Dean received a call from Sununu, the latest in a string of communications from the governor’s office in the lead-up to the protest, according to emails and the timeline released by the university.

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Neither the emails nor the timeline describe the nature of the conversation between the governor and president. However, university staff wrote in the timeline that Dean did not request a state police presence and Sununu did not indicate he would send any officers at that time.

But, approximately 90 minutes later, according to the timeline, state police notified UNH police that they would be on hand “at the governor’s order”.

At around the same time, Sununu publicly made his position on the protests clear: “100% this is pure antisemitism. . . . The state is not going to stand – and I don’t think these communities are going to stand or these institutions are going to stand – for disruption and destruction of property.”

Both UNH spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga and a spokesperson from Sununu’s office declined to provide additional details about the substance of the May 1 conversation between Dean and Sununu.

In the lead up to the protest, Sununu’s office was in frequent contact with UNH administrators, including asking about university policies, including the use of tents.

Blackman, the dean of students, wrote in an email that they had “recently received a call from the governor’s office asking if students are allowed to camp on [Thompson] Hall lawn.”

“Although there’s nothing prohibiting tents during the day (assuming they don’t disrupt entrance/egress), people are not allowed to camp overnight at UNH,” Blackman wrote to colleagues at the time. “That doesn’t mean that the right decision for colleges in these moments is to immediately clear the area, but colleges are often faced with complicated decisions in these moments between enforcing their rules and escalation.”

On the day of the protest, Dean wrote that UNH “gets direct check-ins from the governor’s office staff.”

“The State of New Hampshire communicated constantly with UNH and Dartmouth ahead of the planned protests and offered their schools the full support of state resources should they need them,” Brandon Pratt, Sununu’s communication director, wrote in a statement Wednesday.

At 4:56 p.m. on May 1, four minutes before the scheduled start of the protest, UNH’s deputy chief of police emailed a state police commander and a lieutenant a security operations plan for the event. (The document was withheld by UNH Deputy General Counsel Karyl Martin, who cited an emergency preparations exemption to the state’s Right-to-Know law.)

The first interaction between police and protesters came about 90 minutes later when, bystanders said that UNH Police Chief Paul Dean, who is unrelated to President Dean, ran into a group of protesters while in plain clothes after spotting one holding a component of a tent. A video does not capture the initial interaction but shows what occurred next. At around that time, Dean called for back up from state police, according to the university timeline.

Of the 12 people arrested later, 10 were students. Thirteen UNH police officers and 18 state police officers were involved in the police response, according to the university’s timeline.

“State Police proactively staged off-site to ensure speedy response times, but was not activated until a request for their assistance was made by local authorities,” said Pratt, the Sununu communications director.

Administrators claim‘outside groups’ areresponsible

Following the protests, critics of the police response flooded the email inboxes of UNH administrators.

“I am looking for more information on why state police in riot gear were called in to break up a peaceful protest on campus moments after it started,” a UNH alumnus wrote to a senior administrator. “This does not feel like a reasonable response to students exercising their right to free speech on campus.”

Privately, the administrators responded, particularly to professors, that the planned encampment had been the work of outsiders, a claim made in the wake of protests on other campuses, as well.

“Outside groups have developed a playbook to erect campsites on college campuses and when possible to occupy buildings. They ran this at Dartmouth and UNH,” Dean wrote to a professor two days after the protest.

“[I]t appeared that most of the individuals who actually linked arms and set up tents were not students,” Blackman wrote in an email to some administrators following the event.

It is not entirely clear what led them to this conclusion and Blackman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Of the two non-students arrested, one was the 56-year-old mother of a student protester, the student said in an interview. The two people charged with assault are both students, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

Documents reportedly recovered from the scene of the protest may have been partly responsible for the “outsider” claim. According to an email from Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig included in the records shared, pamphlets with titles such as “Small Town Organizing for Anarchists”, “A Field Guide to Wheatpasting”, “Elements of a Barricade” were found outside Thompson Hall.

“[T]he degree of coordination with the events at Dartmouth and around the country on Wednesday, coupled with the items recovered from the site of the protest, suggest the influence of outside actors,” Provost Wayne Jones wrote in an email to a professor on May 3.

DeLuzuriaga, the university’s spokesperson, said Wednesday that she was not able to provide any more information about why senior administrators believed outsiders were to blame for the planned encampment.

“The UNH police continue to investigate the extent to which individuals not affiliated with the university were involved in the protest,” deLuzuriaga said.

On May 6, five days after the initial protest, about 150 people gathered outside Thompson Hall again. Police were noticeably absent.

“If there are issues, I’ll be present with a few other staff to attempt to resolve it without law enforcement intervention like was (unsuccessfully) attempted last Wednesday,” Blackman wrote to administrators the evening before.

Some spirited exchanges took place between protesters and American-flag waving counter-protesters, but there were no tents – and no arrests.