Students and Faculty Say Barnard Administration Has Undermined Academic Freedom

The Barnard Honor Code, approved by the student body in 1912, promises a community where academic freedom “thrives.” Yet, as violence rages in Israel and Gaza, and protests and vigils are held on campus, students and faculty claim that the Barnard administration has undermined academic freedom.

On October 23rd, Barnard’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) department published a statement which began with an expression of “solidarity with our students who have experienced a wide variety of emotions and reactions following the disturbing events that have occurred in recent weeks and over multiple decades,” according to Janet Jakobsen, a WGSS Professor and Co-Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW). While the WGSS’s statement named support for the Palestinian people, it also “deplor[ed]” Hamas’ killing of Israeli citizens. The statement was followed by a list of educational resources collected by WGSS faculty, including articles, academic writings, and syllabi. 

WGGS faculty decided to compose the statement because the department’s students expressed “intellectual concerns” that were not addressed in formal letters published by President Rosenbury of Barnard College and President Shafik of Columbia University on Oct. 26 and 18th respectively. 

“[The letters] were out of touch with the political climate on campus,” says a WGSS student. “The WGSS statement felt more true to my experience on campus, as it was responsive to and reflective of student anxieties and outrage over obstacles to Palestinian movements for liberation.”

A few hours after the WGSS statement was published, the department received an email from Barnard’s Provost Office, which informed faculty members that their statement was removed from the WGSS website due to a college policy that prohibits “political activity.” 

An October 12, 2020 letter to Barnard faculty and staff, written by former Executive Vice President of the College and General Counsel, Jomysha Delgado Stephen, outlines the term “political activity,” with “impermissible activities” under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, IRS guidance, and the Federal Election Campaign Act, such as contributing, fundraising or publicly supporting political candidates for public office as a representative of Barnard College. 

“The guidance is always only focused on electoral politics,” says Jakobsen. “The claim of the college is that WGSS’s statement is a form of ‘political activity’ that is no longer acceptable on the college’s website. So this is a major change in the policy of the college.”

While the WGSS department wrote back to the college after the statement was removed, and additionally met with President Rosenbury and the Provost’s Office, they have not yet heard a response with a specific explanation of how the policy was violated. 

A Barnard College spokesperson says that the institution “supports the academic freedom of our faculty and the free expression of our faculty and students,” but writes that “posting viewpoints of political nature on the College’s website” is not supported by Barnard’s acceptable use policy and social media guidelines

“The change in the definition of ‘political activity’ is deeply concerning for the prospect for meaningful academic freedom at Barnard College,” says Jakobsen. “That is not just about current events, but about any kind of pressure that is brought on the college, where powerful actors, government officials, whoever it may be, could say, ‘well, I don’t like the politics of this.’ And even if that is simply because it disagrees with their politics, even though it is actually knowledge, what would our protections be?” 

“This is a clear breach of student’s and faculty’s academic freedom at Barnard and Columbia,” says the WGSS student. “To me, this feels reflective of the institution’s longstanding history of silencing student voices and student activism, especially when they challenge the antiquated views of donors and the board of trustees. “

Barnard’s 2007 issued Code of Academic Freedom and Tenure states that “all officers of administration” are “entitled to freedom in the classroom,” “research,” “publication,” and “expression.” The Code also “endorses” the American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Professional Ethics, which calls for the protection of academic freedom and that faculty’s freedom of inquiry should not be “compromised” when “using, extending, and transmitting knowledge.”

Yet, Jakobsen, who has taught at Barnard for over 20 years and served in the college’s 2021-2022 Faculty Committee on Free Expression, says she “no longer knows the status of academic freedom” at the institution. 

“After 9/11, we had several college-wide panels where people presented all different kinds of views,” says Jakobsen. “There was a sense that we could consider this problem from a different perspective than the one that policy makers in the government were considering.”

“Palestine [is an] exception to free speech and academic freedom at Barnard,” says Nadia Abu El-Haj, Barnard professor of Anthropology in a letter to President Rosenbury, “as it is in so many other contexts in US society – an exception that is skyrocketing in its reach and consequences today.”

It is not only Barnard faculty members who have faced administrative pushback during the ongoing Israel-Gaza crisis, but students as well. On November 1st, just over 24 hours before the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), comprised of Columbia, Barnard, and graduate “Palestinians and Jewish students, in addition to SWANA, South Asian, Latine, Black, East Asian, and other communities,” were set to host Palestinian poet, journalist, and activist Mohammed El-Kurd and Herbert Lehman Professor of Government Mahmood Mamdani, Barnard Events Management canceled the event. 

The conversation, entitled “Palestine Today: Modes of Resistance,” was co-sponsered by the BCRW, and would have been aimed to “educate” a 300-membered “audience on the status quo and history of Palestine from El-Kurd and Professor Mamdani’s perspectives. We believe strongly that such important contextualization and nuanced discussion are paramount in the current climate — which is why the cancellation was a great disappointment to us and everyone involved,” says SJP.

On Monday, October 30th, SJP’s event was confirmed for Barnard’s Held Lecture Hall, with the capacity to hold the number of registered students. On Wednesday night, SJP, which is not a officially Barnard-recognized club, received an email from Events Management which stated that “we have a process by which non-Barnard sponsored organizations who wish to co-sponsor must complete the attached form at least 5 weeks in advance. Because this process was not followed, this event is not confirmed and must be canceled until the process is followed and approved per the guidelines in the sponsorship form.”

However, SJP emphasize that Professor Premilla Nadasen and Jakobsen, Co-Directors of the BCRW, say that the “5 week” policy had never been “enforced or brought up in previous BCRW co-sponsored events.” 

“The cancellation is evidence that there is a ‘Palestine exception’ to academic freedom at Barnard,” says SJP. “We believe that support for suppression comes not only from the university, but also from donors, students, and external organizations that support the Israeli state. We find it likely that our event was canceled so last-minute because these groups flagged our event to Events Management.”

A Barnard College spokesperson says that “the College hosts many kinds of events and encourages a wide array of viewpoints to be expressed for vigorous debate and discussion. When we were made aware of an event that did not follow our approval process, we applied the policy.”

This is not the first time the Barnard administration has interfered with the SJP’s initiatives. In March 2014, the administration removed an SJP banner stating “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine,” which was hung in front of Barnard Hall, although previous student banners had been hung “in the same place for many decades,” according to the Palestine Legal advocacy group. 

As of the release of this article, both Columbia Students Supporting Israel (SSI) and Columbia/Barnard Hillel have not responded for an interview or to comment on their experience with censorship or academic freedom on campus.

On November 10th, Columbia suspended SJP and Columbia Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) following a protest on campus. Although members of SJP say that they feel increased “anxiety and insecurity on campus,” the group remains “steadfastly committed” to their mission. 

“It is up to the administration to stop creating roadblocks to our organization at this time and support our rights to free speech,” says SJP. “This means reevaluating policies around event organization that have been created and enforced in the past month.”

“I would ask for a clear statement of support for academic freedom, even when it is not in agreement with the political interests of the college or the government,” says Jakobsen. “I would ask for an embrace of what has been one of the founding principles of academic work for over 100 years.”

Jakobsen is not alone in her sentiment. “Free speech is a building block of any democratic polity,” says a letter entitled “Academic Freedom Under Attack at Barnard,” signed by 1000+ students, faculty, staff, and alumni. “Academic freedom is necessary in order to protect humanistic and scientific inquiry from censorship, prejudice, and discrimination, and to ensure the safety of all scholars and students engaged in the pursuit of learning.”

Photography by Samantha Candelo Ortegon

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