Texas Tech suspends professor over Israel-Hamas war comments

View of the Administration building on the Texas Tech University campus on July 8, 2020.
View of the administration building on the Texas Tech University campus on July 8, 2020. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

Texas Tech University placed a faculty member on paid leave Monday after university leaders found the professor had posted a series of comments on social media that officials described as “hateful, antisemitic, and unacceptable.”

According to a joint statement from Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec and Texas Tech University System Chancellor Tedd Mitchell, comments allegedly made by assistant professor Jairo Fúnez-Flores on social media were “antithetical” to the university’s values, according to its ethical code of conduct. The university system’s Office of Equal Opportunity is now investigating whether he made similar comments in the classroom or work environment.

The university did not provide examples or provide more details on the comments that caused officials to suspend the professor.

“We take the First Amendment’s application to public universities seriously; however, we are also committed to providing a safe learning and working environment that is free from harassment, including antisemitic harassment, and will not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into harassment and interferes with or limits the ability of an individual to participate in the educational activities of Texas Tech University (TTU),” Schovanec and Mitchell said in a joint statement.

Fúnez-Flores is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the university’s college of education. He specializes in decolonial theory and ethnography and analyzes the way educators teach about activists and student movements. He could not immediately be reached for comment.

Schovanec and Mitchell also stated that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently warned universities they could be found in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if they know or should have known that discriminatory harassment occurred on campus and did not act quickly to address it, including antisemitic harassment.

Tech’s investigation into Fúnez-Flores comes amid continuing tensions at college campuses across the country as students have clashed over their support of Israel and Palestine as the war between Israel and Hamas nearly reaches its fifth month. Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, students have held protests, had heated discussions and demanded university leaders take a stand on the fraught and devastating conflict. In many cases, school leaders have struggled to strike the right balance between their roles as moderators and facilitators of intellectual debate on campus.

The pressure to respond to tensions stemming from the conflict comes at a politically tense time in Texas, where state leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have declared unilateral support for Israel.

Texas lawmakers have also sought to further regulate the operation of public universities — last year they eliminated diversity, equity and inclusion programs and gave the state more control over faculty tenure policies — which critics say has resulted in knee-jerk reactions from university leaders trying to stay out of the political spotlight.

While many of the conflicts on campus over the Israel-Hamas war have involved confrontations between student organizations and administrators, faculty have also gotten caught in the political crosshairs.

Last semester, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who organized a discussion about the Israel-Hamas war drew condemnation from some students who disagreed with the description of Hamas as a terrorist organization during the talk. Afterward, the dean of the college criticized the professor for mismanaging the event and established a new policy requiring the dean’s approval for all future talks organized by the professor’s department.

The professor resigned from his position as chair of the political science department, arguing the university’s decision to change policy was a sign they did not want faculty to engage in controversial subjects. University leaders have denied that assessment.

Tech’s decision to place Fúnez-Flores on leave comes a few weeks after the far-right website, Texas Scorecard, published a post about the professor’s comments about Israel on social media.

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University, Texas Tech University System and University of Texas - Arlington have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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