UT-Austin investigates students amid tensions over Israel-Hamas war

TAs Callie Kennedy, left, and Parham Daghighi, right, speak to a crowd. UT Austin students rallied at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work in a protest demanding the reinstatement of TAs Callie Kennedy and Parham Daghighi on Dec. 8, 2023.

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

The University of Texas at Austin is investigating four current and former students after a tense exchange in which the students demanded administrators reinstate two teaching assistants who were dismissed last year amid on-campus disputes over the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Administrators have described the Dec. 8 incident as disruptive and potentially illegal. But the students under investigation say that characterization is overblown. They accuse UT-Austin officials of trying to quell their First Amendment right to protest and say the investigation is an example of how the university is targeting students who express support for Palestinians and Palestinian students.

“This is an attack on the civil liberties of all UT students,” Evan Scope-Crafts, a Ph.D. candidate and one of the students under investigation, told The Texas Tribune. “This is an attack on anybody who's trying to fight for the rights of oppressed groups in the United States and abroad.”

The four students are Scope-Crafts, Valkyrie Church, Sameeha Rizvi and a student who wishes to remain anonymous. They received letters on Jan. 17 stating the university is investigating them because they “intentionally caused a disruption” inside a school administrator’s office.

The letter, provided to the Tribune by the students’ lawyer, said the students possibly violated university policies related to disruptive conduct, failure to comply with directives from officials and unauthorized entry into university buildings. It also says the university is investigating the students for potentially violating local, state or federal laws, but does not specify which laws.

“It seemed to be a chance, once again, to just censor and stop students from being able to organize effectively, especially where the administration doesn't want to listen,” said Rizvi, who graduated from UT-Austin in December and is one of the four students under investigation.

UT-Austin did not respond Friday to a request for comment or questions about how administrators say the students' exchange with Cole transpired.

According to Scope-Crafts and Rizvi, a group of 10 to 15 students entered the office suite for Allan Cole, the dean of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, and were greeted by the administrative staff. They then entered Cole’s office, which was unlocked, and started reading a letter to him. In the letter, they demanded UT-Austin reinstate the teaching assistants who were dismissed last year and publicly state its support for “protecting freedom of speech for Palestinian and pro-Palestinian students on campus.”

Both students said Cole was on the phone when they entered his office. When the group of students read the letter, they said, Cole walked out of the room, went to another office and locked the door.

Rizvi said they handed the letter to his secretary and headed to a protest happening outside, where dozens of students were also voicing their concern with the school’s decision to remove the teaching assistants. Scope-Crafts said UT police showed up to the protest and started asking him questions about what happened inside the dean’s office. He said he spoke to police briefly before rejoining the protest.

The Dec. 8 protest stemmed from the university’s decision last November to dismiss two teaching assistants after they sent a message to their students sharing mental health resources for students affected by the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. The message also condemned the university for its “silence around the suffering many of our students, staff and faculty are experiencing.” The school removed the teaching assistants from their positions stating that their message was “inappropriate” and “unprompted.”

The teaching assistants’ dismissal occurred amid escalating tensions at college campuses across the country as students have clashed over their support of Israel and Palestine and demanded university leaders take a stand on the fraught and devastating conflict. At UT-Austin, some students called on university leaders to provide more support and protections for Palestinian students on campus. Around that time, Gov. Greg Abbott urged university leaders to protect Jewish students.

“You have a leadership responsibility to ensure that there was no one on your campuses that are advocating for genocide or anti-Semitisim,” he told a crowd at a higher education conference in Austin in December. “It is completely unacceptable in the state of Texas, period.”

Ever since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack, some UT-Austin students have expressed their discontent with university leaders’ response to the conflict. Students said they were especially upset that the university did nothing to protect Palestinian students or show support after a group of men who appeared to be unaffiliated with the university interrupted a student meeting of the Palestine Solidarity Committee on Oct. 12 and started intimidating students, calling them “fucking terrorists.”

Students who were shaken by that event called on the university to condemn the harassment, but administrators stayed silent. The following day, President Jay Hartzell sent a message to the UT-Austin community announcing increased security for Jewish groups on campus, a move that left Palestinian students and their supporters feeling ignored.

The teaching assistants, Callie Kennedy and Parham Daghighi, were dismissed from their positions with pay shortly after, following a grievance filed with Cole about their Nov. 16 message. Cole said they would not be reinstated as teaching assistants the following semester.

Kennedy and Daghighi were later offered research assistant positions for the spring semester, but told the Tribune their dismissal still amounted to punishment. Students who joined the protest on Dec. 8 said the university’s decision to remove the teaching assistants was an “outsized reaction” and accused the university of suppressing academic freedom, a longstanding principle on college campuses that protects faculty’s speech and research from outside political interference.

Days after the students approached Cole in his office, UT-Austin said on social media the university was investigating multiple incidents they believed to be unacceptable.

“Protestors crossed the line of acceptable behavior and violated University rules multiple times this week,” the university posted on the social media platform X. “We will not tolerate disruptions to the teaching and research activities of our students, faculty and staff; our campus; or events. We are investigating and will punish those found to violate our rules, policies or the law.”

The post does not specifically mention the Dec. 8 incident, but links to an Austin American-Statesman article about the protest and said the “actions taken toward a University leader on Friday stem from intentionally false narratives and a coordinated disinformation campaign. We will protect speech, but we will not tolerate harassment, disruption, and dishonesty.”

Two days before the protest outside the school of social work, students also briefly interrupted a university-sponsored event with writer Bari Weiss, one of the founders of the recently created University of Austin, who was invited to campus to discuss the events in Israel and Gaza.

Scope-Crafts and Rizvi said they did not hear from the university again regarding the incident at Cole’s office until the first week of the spring semester when they received a letter from Katie McGee, executive director of the university’s Student Conduct and Academic Integrity department. McGee alerted them they were under investigation and that the university had scheduled a meeting with the students on Jan. 22. There, the office would share information they received related to the incident and allow them to respond.

According to UT-Austin’s student disciplinary procedures, the school is now expected to provide a ruling in the matter, called an administrative disposition. That document typically includes the university’s investigative findings, any sanctions and options for a resolution. Students can appeal the ruling in a hearing.

According to Scope-Crafts, Rizvi and their lawyer, George Lobb, who attended the meeting, university administrators would not exclude suspending or expelling the students as possible disciplinary measures. Scope-Crafts said the administrators “failed to engage in any meaningful way regarding the facts of the case.”

“They basically wanted us to admit that our conduct was disruptive, violated university policy, and so on, and apologize for it,” Scope-Crafts said.

“We don't think we've done anything wrong,” he added. “We delivered a letter. That was it. And we were fighting or continuing to fight for what we believe is right.”

The students said they are still waiting for the university to rule on the case.

Scope-Crafts said UT-Austin and colleges across the country have a long history of civil disobedience and peaceful protests, many of which could be considered far more disruptive than the Dec. 8 incident.

“For us to be facing charges including disruptive conduct, unauthorized entry, failure to comply, and unspecified violations of local law for simply reading a letter … It's honestly an astonishing act of hypocrisy by the university,” he said.

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

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