Dear Wake Forest faculty and staff,

Free expression is a pillar of our academic mission and the safety and wellbeing of our students is among our most important commitments. As president, I am dedicated to free expression for all members of our academic community. As president and as a parent, there is no more sacred duty than ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all of our students. When these values and commitments come into conflict, decision-making in the interests of our community becomes more challenging. Such was apparent for me and our University leadership team as we worked to hold these values in tension when making decisions about the recent campus demonstration. I write to provide an account of some of the factors that influenced our decision to disperse the encampment and why a police presence was necessary. 

From the moment tent poles went into the ground on Hearn Plaza on April 30 to their ultimate removal from Manchester Plaza on May 3, members of the University leadership team remained in continual dialogue with students and with faculty in an effort to create a safe environment for our students to peacefully demonstrate. Provost Gillespie and Vice President Kidd Brown, among others, were present on campus throughout the night of May 2 through May 3, working diligently to find a peaceful resolution. What we witnessed, heard and experienced collectively over the course of those days, particularly over the final few hours, directly informed our decision to act. 

It became clear by Thursday afternoon (May 2) that the situation on Manchester Plaza was growing both untenable and unsafe. Student demonstrators had been outside for days, putting their health and wellbeing at risk. The encampment continued to expand, with additional tents, plywood, and two-by-fours, and with calls on social media for supporters to bring more supplies.

Overnight (May 2), university staff monitored and protected students and the site, adding lighting and cameras, and increasing security patrols of the area. These actions were in part responsive to the direct requests of student demonstrators for additional security and administrative presence out of concern for their own safety, with a number of counter-protestors walking by and engaging. Despite these efforts, concerns were heightened further when student demonstrators posted a call on social media for people from both in and outside of our Wake Forest community to come to campus and help prevent any action to disperse the encampment. External involvement in campus encampments, as we have seen in demonstrations across higher education, has been a major escalator in rhetoric and actions of otherwise peaceful protests on campuses across the country. 

These facts, and demonstrators’ repeated aggressive and inappropriate exchanges with administrators and staff on the site, and ongoing failure to comply with the directives of University staff, stand in stark contrast to assertions by some that we were close to a mutually agreeable resolution. A combination of these and other factors informed our decision to have police on standby when the order for disperse was provided early Friday morning (May 3).

Chief Lawson led our planning for this effort with great care, and in coordination with her colleagues from responding agencies. Importantly, only our WFU officers (9) were assigned to interact, and only if needed, with our students. Forsyth County deputies (3) were there to provide transport to the Magistrate’s office should any arrests occur and Winston-Salem officers (13) were there to provide backup support, only if critically needed. 

As part of the planning efforts, WFU Facilities staff and their trucks were on the scene to help collect and store student belongings, if needed. The trucks inadvertently blocked the planned parking area for the one Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office van that was present, which then pulled directly onto Manchester Plaza, and thus closer to the encampment than intended or desired. This was undoubtedly frightening for some, and I regret that this occurred. 

Let me be very clear: no officers from any agency — including WFU officers — approached or even spoke to the involved students and faculty that Friday morning. The peaceful dispersal of the encampment was complete in 25 minutes, there were no arrests and there are currently no pending conduct charges for any student’s involvement in setting up or participating in the encampment demonstration. 

I am aware that some members of our community assert that the presence of police was an act of violence, and I disagree. There was no police violence perpetrated against any member of our community on May 3 or in the days prior. 

Our decision to involve police in this effort has fractured trust with some in our community. I am confident that we made these decisions in good faith and with the safety and well-being of our protesting students and our entire campus community in mind. I am providing this detailed account to you today, in part to allow us to engage in dialogue based on the facts of what transpired. 

As I shared at the start, free expression is a core value of our institution. I will always strongly defend students’ and faculty’s right to speak freely about issues for which they feel passionately, including the war in Gaza. Students, faculty and staff have a wide range of views that can be in tension with one another. Ideas in tension can bring vibrancy to our education, research and creative activities, but can also create challenges. And as a university, all of us — faculty, staff, and administrators — have the collective responsibility to protect both freedom of expression and the care and safety of our community.  

As a matter of standard practice, last week, I also charged the administration to conduct an after-action review of the university response. And as faculty were both involved in and impacted by the encampment demonstration, Faculty Senate leadership will be invited to participate in the process. I also welcome further dialogue through meetings and our shared governance channels, including the Faculty Senate, Staff Advisory Council, and Student Government organizations. 

I recognize that members of our campus community may have different perspectives regarding their experiences related to the encampment, demonstrations, and responses; it may not be possible to resolve those differences. However, I am committed to the work we must continue to do together to heal from this moment and ensure we further cultivate a learning environment of respect, integrity, and care. 


Susan R. Wente

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