University of Texas instructors suspended for expressing support for Palestinian cause in student message
The center of the University of Texas at Austin main campus. (Photo: Istock)

UT says teaching assistants misused school platform to express views; faculty demands their reinstatement

By Beth Harpaz
December 14, 2023

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Professors at the University of Texas are demanding the reinstatement of teaching assistants who were suspended after expressing support for the Palestinian cause in a message to students. That message also offered mental health resources to students upset about the war in Gaza. 

A letter from more than 100 faculty members, sent Monday to UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell, alleged that dismissing the two instructors “in retaliation” for their message to students constitutes “an attempt to censor their voices and sends an intimidating message to other students and instructors.”

The university defended its suspension of the teaching instructors, saying via email that the pair had “unprofessionally misused the official University classroom communication platform to send a personal political message to the students in a course.” 

The university also sent a message to students in the class saying that the teaching assistants had improperly used Canvas, the school’s communication platform, to present “personal viewpoints on current events.”

A class about mental health 

The controversy began when the instructors, Parham Daghighi and Callie Kennedy, sent a message to students in their School of Social Work “Women & Madness” class on Nov. 16 acknowledging “the mental health implications of the current escalation of violence in Gaza.” They said students had asked them for support, and they listed several options for accessing mental health counseling, including guidance on “how to ameliorate the effects of a trauma response.” 

The teaching assistants also asserted their personal support for “the rights and autonomy of Palestinians, Indigenous people, and displaced peoples across the globe, knowing that oppression results in trauma and negative mental health outcomes that can span generations.” 

The letter made no reference to the Oct. 7 attacks in which Hamas murdered 1,200 people and kidnapped 240 people from kibbutzim and a music festival in Israel. Those attacks prompted Israel’s war on Gaza, which Gaza officials say has killed more than 17,000 people. 

The instructors themselves did not respond to requests for comment. UT spokesman Brian Davis said both instructors were offered employment for the spring semester. 

The professors who wrote to Hartzell said the instructors’ note “was sent with the approval of the course professor, to a class focused on mental health, in response to a student’s request for support and acknowledgement.” 

The professors also alleged that university administrators have “reprimanded student government leaders for re-posting pro-Palestinian content” while failing to “meaningfully act on the intimidation and threats Palestinian students and their allies have faced on and offline.” 

Those threats included an Oct. 12 incident in which several people, apparently unaffiliated with the university, showed up at a student Palestine Solidarity Committee event, called the participants “f—ing terrorists,” and tossed fliers at them. 

‘Express equal support’

Hartzell issued a statement after the Oct.12 incident saying that the university has “zero tolerance for the antisemitic actions targeting our Jewish community or the hate-filled actions targeting our Palestinian and Muslim communities.” 

But the faculty letter accused Hartzell of suggesting that “only speech supporting Israel’s military action is protected at UT Austin.” The professors called on Hartzell to “express equal support for Palestinian and Jewish members of our community”; provide “material support” for Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and all students who feel “unsafe and unwelcome,” and ban “retaliatory actions in response to instructors’ and students’ right to free speech.”

Antiwar activism, student walkouts and other protests have made headlines on campuses nationwide since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and Israel’s war in Gaza. Professors, administrators, students and their parents have accused dozens of U.S. colleges of favoritism and lack of support for one side or the other. 

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating complaints of antisemitism as well as Islamophobia on numerous campuses; some students have filed lawsuits and others have declared their intention to leave colleges where they feel unsafe.

Many college presidents have struggled to balance free speech and academic freedom on the one hand, and protecting students from harassment and hate speech on the other. The president of the University of Pennsylvania, Liz Magill, resigned after a congressional hearing in which she said that calling for the genocide of Jews might be permitted under UPenn’s code of conduct depending on the context. 

Beth Harpaz is a reporter for the Forward. She previously worked for The Associated Press, first covering breaking news and politics, then as AP Travel editor. Email: harpaz@forward.com.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

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