From Letters to Protest

Barnard Faculty Respond to the Crisis in Gaza and Censorship on Campus.

On November 15th at 1pm, around 100 faculty and graduate workers gathered on Low Plaza to protest academic censorship and to show support for student activists. Prompted by messages from prominent members of the administration, including Barnard President Laura Rosenbury’s October 26 email condemning anti-Zionism alongside antisemitism, as well as the sudden suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice For Peace, faculty presented five demands to the University during the protest. Demands centered on affirming protections for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, especially for student groups. Multiple Barnard professors spoke at the protest, including Neferti M. Tadiar, Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Premilla Nadasen, Professor of History, and Debbie Becher, Associate Professor of Sociology. 

“Because I have tenure, I have a special responsibility to speak,” says Becher. “I know from listening to so many faculty members that those who don’t have tenure feel they might lose their jobs [by speaking out].”

The protest is not the first time Barnard professors have spoken out about administrative messages and actions as well as campus atmosphere since October 7th. In response to President Rosenbury’s October 26th email, Barnard Professor of Anthropology and Co-Director of the Center for Palestine Studies Nadia Abu El-Haj penned an open letter denouncing its rhetoric for threatening academic freedom and free speech. El-Haj condemned Rosenbury’s conflation of antisemitism, which El-Haj described as “directed against persons for who they are,” with anti-Zionism, “directed at a state-building project and a political regime.” Citing her position on the committee on academic freedom, El-Haj criticized the email for making it “loud and clear” that “Palestine will be the exception to free speech and academic freedom at Barnard.” She was present at the protest and faculty speakers echoed her concerns.

Becher, who read from an open letter titled “From Jewish Students: Protecting the Free Speech of our Peers”  at the faculty protest, penned an op-ed of her own which was published in Columbia Spectator on November 13. Titled “A time to speak and listen,” Becher reflects upon her Jewish heritage and recent conversations with family and friends about the ongoing crisis in Gaza. Criticizing Barnard and Columbia administrators for “ignoring and silencing Palestinian sympathies and political action” by advancing “extreme Zionist positions,” Becher’s letter encourages readers across Barnard and Columbia to work to overcome fears that prevent individuals from speaking up, and to find safety in the collective. She concluded by affirming that it is possible to acknowledge “the complexity of this enduring conflict” while “[telling] our institutions that they do not speak for us when they support this ongoing war, apartheid, and the occupation of Palestine.” Becher was among multiple Jewish faculty to speak at the protest. 

“Since writing it, I have had many students tell me that many of them identified with the sentiments and that it felt reassuring to hear a faculty member speak publicly,” says Becher. “It sounds like it was helpful in modeling, not just about my certain position, but that this is a community where we can take positions and engage with each other.”

Statements representing other faculty viewpoints have also circulated. A faculty letter calling for Columbia to maintain ties with Israel has gathered over two hundred signatures, including six Barnard professors. The letter was co-written by faculty members of the Academic Engagement Network, a Zionist organization whose goals include to “counter antisemitism” “promote academic freedom” and “advance education about Israel.” It is funded by the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization which recently allegedly distributed funding to college students to attend a Zionist rally in Washington DC. The letter defends Zionism and encourages Columbia to maintain its ties to Israel, while explicitly avoiding “[endorsing] any one approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Another faculty letter, in response to Rosenbury’s October 26th email, accuses Rosenbury of devaluing Palestinian lives as well as “[endangering] Barnard students, faculty, staff and alumni who are demanding attention be paid to Palestinians being slaughtered”. The letter, which calls for the protection of academic freedom, the restoration of faculty self governance, and the decreasing of police surveillance on campus, has garnered over 1,000 faculty, students, staff, and alumni signatures.

Faculty have also used open letters to engage in direct discourse. An October 30th faculty letter defended an early student-written statement, while another faculty letter accused it of legitimizing Hamas by supporting the student statement. Both letters call for the university to protect students from harassment in the interest of cultivating open debate on campus. 

“We need the college to not take a political position,” says Becher. As a professor, Becher is sure to be “absolutely neutral as to how I support students with different positions” in the classroom, but says that political conversations still belong on campus. “One of the things we [at the faculty protest] are pushing for is that the institutions need to be neutral. Many faculty think the institution has claimed a position” she said, explaining that this makes it difficult for faculty to go about acknowledging and discussing the ongoing crisis with students.

Becher says that the majority of faculty are focusing on “finding ways to help our students get through this, trying to figure out what that means,” such as making space in class to facilitate discussions or holding extended office hours.

A more recent statement from faculty denouncing the November 11 suspension of student organizations SJP and JVP and calling for an apology from the administration has not made its signatories public at this time.

A portion of this letter was read at the November 15 faculty protest. After the rally, faculty attendees attempted to deliver their demands to the offices of Columbia President Minouche Shafik and President Rosenbury, but were faced with locked doors at Low Library and were prevented from entering Milbank Hall. Demands were taped to the facades of both buildings instead as Barnard professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies Rebecca Jordan-Young led a chant: “Academic freedom under attack! What do we do? Stand up, fight back!” 

The Barnard and Columbia administrations have yet to publicly respond to the demands presented.

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