Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
When a University of Texas at Austin student approached teaching assistant Callie Kennedy earlier this semester and asked her to speak with a professor about how the Israel-Hamas war — and the reverberations in Texas — were impacting students’ mental health, Kennedy and her colleague Parham Daghighi crafted a response.
With the course professor’s approval, Daghighi and Kennedy sent a message to the class that included mental health resources and a condemnation of the university’s “silence around the suffering many of our students, staff, and faculty are experiencing on campus.”
Six days later, university administrators told Daghighi and Kennedy the message was “inappropriate” and “unprompted” in a letter letting them know they had been removed from their positions.
The latest war between Israel and Hamas, newly reignited two months ago, has tested the limits of colleges’ commitment to free speech on campuses across the country. Faced with student protests, heated discussions and pro-Palestine and pro-Israel advocates demanding universities take a stand, school leaders are wrestling with striking the right balance between their roles as moderators and facilitators of intellectual debate on campus.
This has proved particularly difficult in Texas, where a series of isolated incidents across University of Texas System campuses has resulted in reactions from administrators that students and faculty say limit their freedom of expression. On Dec. 11, more than 100 UT-Austin professors sent a letter to President Jay Hartzell demanding the university reinstate the two teaching assistants and issue a public apology to them. They also called on Hartzell and the university to "express equal support for Palestinian and Jewish members of our community who are profoundly suffering, and provide material support to safeguard Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and all students who have been made to feel unsafe and unwelcome on our campus."
The pressure of responding to tensions stemming from the conflict comes at a politically fraught time, when Texas lawmakers have sought to further regulate the operation of public universities — most recently by eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion offices and attempting to limit tenure for faculty. Critics say the result has been knee-jerk or lukewarm responses from colleges.
“We're not interested in blank statements about freedom of speech that don't actually address freedom of speech protections for marginalized groups, such as Palestinian and pro-Palestinian students,” Kennedy said the week after she and her colleague were dismissed.
Responding to students
In the week after violence engulfed parts of the Middle East, following the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack, UT-Austin students said they were upset with university leaders' silence over the conflict.
On Oct. 12, students with the Palestine Solidarity Committee held an event on UT-Austin’s campus to discuss the history and context of the war. Roughly an hour into the event three men, who appeared to be unaffiliated with the university, disrupted the meeting and began intimidating students, calling them “fucking terrorists.”
The students, shaken by the event, called on the university to condemn the harassment. The university stayed silent, which students said felt particularly deafening after President Jay Hartzell sent a message to the UT-Austin community the next day announcing increased security for Jewish groups on campus.
Shortly after, a student approached Daghighi and Kennedy, who were working as teaching assistants in a course titled “Women and Madness,” asking if they could address the mental health needs of Palestinian and Arab students on campus. The two worked with course professor Lauren Gulbas on the letter and sent it to students on Nov. 16.
“The message fully aligned with the scope of the course and our responsibility as teaching assistants,” Kennedy said.
The letter addressed the Oct. 12 harassment incident and concluded by declaring that “we firmly support the rights and autonomy of Palestinians, Indigenous people, and displaced peoples across the globe.”
One day later, Gulbas informed Daghighi and Kennedy that a student in the class had filed a grievance with School of Social Work Dean Allan Cole regarding the statement. The three met, but before they had an opportunity to address the class, Cole dismissed Daghighi and Kennedy from their positions with pay. Cole said they would not be reinstated as teaching assistants the following semester.
Daghighi and Kennedy said the university violated its own policies by failing to dismiss them with due process.
“I’ve had many positive and close professional working relationships with other faculty,” Kennedy said. “I did not fear any sort of retribution … perhaps that was naive.”
Neither Gulbas nor UT-Austin officials responded to multiple requests for comment.
Kennedy told The Texas Tribune that Cole contacted her and Daghighi earlier this week and offered them research assistant positions for the following semester. But for the graduate students, their dismissal still amounts to punishment for their message.
“These are supposed to be places for free speech and free expression,” Daghighi said. “But ultimately this [retaliation] has created a very tense environment of psychological harm and fear of retribution.”
A divisive political issue
The surprise invasion by Hamas militants in October resulted in the deaths of 1,200 people in Israel. In response, the Israeli Defense Forces’ airstrike campaign led to the deaths of more than 16,000 people, according to the Hamas-led Ministry of Health. Israeli authorities confirmed two thirds of the deaths in Gaza are civilians.
The months of violence have spurred protests across Texas campuses and messages of solidarity, for both sides of the conflict. Incidents of antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab hate have drawn attention to universities’ response to these events.
“Any divisive political issue raises free speech concerns,” said Zach Greenberg, a First Amendment attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. “And universities, instead of trying to control the debate … they should be encouraging it. This is where students learn how to be citizens of our democratic society.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a hot-button issue on college campuses for decades, Greenberg said. Now, he added, the recent escalation has prompted such strong reactions from students because of how it connects to other pressure points in the United States, such as race, ethnicity and disputed land.
On the University of Texas at Arlington’s campus, intense debate over the issue spilled over an event organized by faculty intended to answer student questions about the latest war between Israel and Hamas.
On Oct. 18, professor Morgan Marietta, who was then chair of the university’s political science department, organized a discussion in which students could ask questions about the 75-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the beginning of the talk, Marietta described Hamas as a terrorist group, echoing President Joe Biden's description of the group. Some students took issue with the characterization and interrupted the discussion, shouting over Marietta.
In response, Elizabeth Newman, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said that Marietta mismanaged the event and established a new policy requiring her approval for all future talks organized by his department.
Marietta resigned as the department chair the next day. He remains a professor at UT-Arlington.
“It's a complete violation of the standards of American universities of how things should operate. We don't ask permission of deans to speak and we don't beg for the ability to get their clearance,” Marietta told the Tribune.
Joe Carpenter, chief communications officer for UT-Arlington, said Marietta was provided with guidance on how to plan future events to ensure students can learn and engage in spirited debate. Carpenter said the university did not issue content or topic restrictions.
“If any recent characterizations or events made unclear our institution’s stance on free speech or academic freedom, I am here to unequivocally reaffirm our unwavering commitment to these vital principles,” UT-Arlington President Jennifer Cowley wrote on Nov. 3.
For Marietta, the administration sent a clear message. By issuing the new guidance to the political science department, he said university leaders effectively told other professors who might discuss controversial subjects to “cut it out.”
“People know, when they're being told, ‘you're being watched, you're being criticized,’” Marietta said. “Assistant professors want to be tenured, and the tenured professors want to be promoted to be a full professor eventually, and everybody wants grants, and nobody wants to upset their dean. So the chilling effect is real.”
While Marietta was attempting to hold a discussion on the Middle East conflict, students 30 miles northeast of Arlington were engaging in a different form of political expression.
Over the past 15 years, students at the University of Texas at Dallas had painted three large boulders situated on campus with event announcements and political messages. The Spirit Rocks, as they were known on campus, have not exclusively been used for political messages, but in the month after the war broke out various student groups painted the rocks with pro-Israel and pro-Palestine messages, alternating between the two and sometimes painting the two flags on the same boulder.
But on Nov. 20, when students headed out to paint the boulders in honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance — which memorializes transgender people who have been murdered because of their identity — they found the rocks were missing.
The university explained, in a statement sent to the school community later that day, that the Spirit Rocks were “not intended to be a display for extended political discourse.” The painted messages had negatively affected people on and off the campus, so the university removed them, officials said.
“There's definitely a chilling effect by the university making the choice that they made and explaining it in the way that they did,” said Student Government President Srivani Edupuganti.
Edupuganti said student expression has visibly decreased in the weeks since the rocks’ removal.
“Students are going to think that it is censorship because we haven't been told anything else,” Edupuganti said.
A representative from UT-Dallas said the university had no further comment on the issue.
Private schools have also had to deal with tensions. At Rice University in Houston, parents of Jewish students asked the university president to denounce pro-Palestininan speech that they said spread hate toward Israel. Meanwhile, supporters of Palestine have been critical of the administration’s response, which they said didn’t address the concerns of Arab and Muslim students.
Vocal students, vocal politicians
Even before the most recent hostilities, Texas Republican lawmakers have maintained unwavering support for Israel and worked to stem boycotts and divestments against the U.S. ally.
“Texas stands ready to offer our complete and total support to Israel in their fight against brutal terrorist organizations like Hamas,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement during a visit to Israel last month.
In 2019, legal groups successfully argued that a 2017 law barring state contractors from boycotting Israel over its treatment of Palestinian civilians violates citizens’ First Amendment rights. Later that year, Texas narrowed that legislation to only apply to a limited range of contracts.
During this year’s regular legislative session, lawmakers passed another law prohibiting boycotts, this time aimed at academic institutions. Senate Bill 1517 bars public universities from boycotting foreign countries if that decision would prevent students or faculty from visiting, researching or interacting with that country. The law followed the first study on antisemitism from the Texas Holocaust, Genocide, and Antisemitism Advisory Commission, which requested lawmakers to consider such a ban.
Texas Republicans have also hurried — and sometimes fumbled — to reiterate their support for Israel and the Jewish community after the Tribune reported that the leader of a conservative political action committee had met with a prominent white nationalist who has expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in October announced he was purchasing $3 million in Israel bonds, the same amount that he received from Defend Texas Liberty, a major GOP donor. Last week, leaders of the Republican Party of Texas voted against barring the party from associating with known Nazi sympathizers and Holocaust deniers.
Texas’ public university leaders, who depend on lawmakers for funding, are keeping an eye on both politicians’ opinions and students’ vocal protests about the war.
Kristen Shahverdian, the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, a nonprofit that works to protect First Amendment rights, said polarization in the country has turned universities into pressure cookers. And when difficult topics, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict emerge, some universities react by trying to tamp down, rather than encourage, more dialogue.
Referring to the removal of the spirit rocks, Shahverdian said: “If campuses have these spaces for freedom of expression, that's a moment where they can really lean in and say … ‘Some speech we're not going to like but we're going to protect all speech because that’s what our mission is.’”
Disclosure: Rice University, University of Texas - Arlington, University of Texas - Dallas and University of Texas at Austin 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.