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Harvard Students, Faculty Denounce Suspensions of Pro-Palestine Protesters

Administrators check the Harvard University IDs of student protesters outside the pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard.
Administrators check the Harvard University IDs of student protesters outside the pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard. By Cam E. Kettles
By Michelle N. Amponsah, Crimson Staff Writer

Updated May 19, 2024, at 10:47 p.m.

More than 1,100 undergraduates signed a petition urging Harvard College to overturn its decision to suspend five students and place more than 20 other students on probation for their participation in the 20-day pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard, according to Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine.

HOOP, the coalition of pro-Palestine student groups that staged the encampment, organized the petition, which appeared to be exclusively accessible to students with a Harvard College email address and allowed students to sign anonymously.

The Crimson could not independently verify the number of students who signed onto the petition.

The number of signatures reported by HOOP represents roughly 15 percent of the College’s student body and reflects broad disapproval of the decision to discipline a significant number of undergraduates just days before Commencement, the University’s annual graduation ceremony.

The sanctions will prevent more than 12 graduating seniors from receiving their diplomas, including several Rhodes Scholar recipients.

Harvard affinity groups and faculty also slammed the College for taking disciplinary action, that many described as a “Palestine exception to free speech.”

At least a dozen student groups, including the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association and the Society of Arab Students, called for the reversal of the sanctions and claimed that students at Harvard historically received little or no disciplinary action for participating in protest movements, according to statements published to Instagram on Saturday.

On Sunday evening, the Harvard Institute of Politics Student Advisory Committee wrote in a statement that the group “strongly condemns” the disciplinary action taken by the Ad Board.

All of the SAC members present voted unanimously in favor of the statement twice.

Unlike some of the affinity groups, however, the IOP struck a line about a Palestine exception for free speech from the statement after at least two SAC members voted against it, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

A “majority of the officers” of the Phillips Brooks House Association also posted a statement to Instagram on Sunday afternoon in which they wrote that the officers were “disappointed” by the University’s move.

“Harvard must prioritize calling in students to discussion rather than punishing students for their peaceful advocacy efforts,” the statement said.

College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo referred to a Friday statement that said Harvard is “committed to applying all policies in a content-neutral manner and per existing regulations as outlined in college and university guidelines.”

Palumbo added that the College does not comment on “specific student matters.”

History professor Walter Johnson, who previously served as faculty adviser to the Palestine Solidarity Committee, wrote in an email that the disciplinary action is “an ethical, procedural, and institutional catastrophe” and that the charges brought against students are “based upon non-specific allegations, some of them presented in the passive voice, and undemonstrated insinuations of unspecified dangers and disruptions.”

“By the end of the encampment, representatives of the administration were IDing people at random in the Yard, and neither the University nor its various ad boards have ever bothered to actually sort out an account of what, exactly, any given student is being accused of doing,” Johnson added.

Classics professor Richard F. Thomas also suggested that Harvard’s response to the encampment differed from its historical approach to student demonstrations.

“Why would Harvard College, alone it seems of our schools, choose to prevent the graduation of these students when it took no action against five or six more serious breaches of conduct over recent decades, including the weeks-long occupation of administrative buildings which actually disrupted university business?” Thomas wrote in an email.

Students have mounted encampments in the Yard before, as in 1986, when students constructed shantytowns to protest Harvard’s investment in companies in apartheid South Africa, or 2011, when students built a tent city in the Yard as part of the Occupy Harvard movement.

In 2001, members of the Progressive Students Labor Movement staged a three week sit-in of Massachusetts Hall, where the president’s office is located, to campaign for a “living wage” for Harvard employees. Students also blockaded Mass. Hall in 2014 and 2015, calling for the University to divest from fossil fuels. In 2016, students staged a sit-in of an administrative building in support of striking Harvard University Dining Services workers.

Though one student was arrested in the 2014 Mass. Hall blockade, Harvard has generally been hesitant to widely issue severe disciplinary sanctions in response to student demonstrations.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain referred The Crimson to an email from interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 to members of Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine, the coalition of student groups who organized the encampment.

Some student organizers facing disciplinary action said they were under the impression that Garber would be lenient with protesters — especially those slated to graduate in Harvard’s Commencement ceremonies Thursday, but Garber’s email contained no explicit promises of leniency.

Garber wrote in the May 14 email that he would “encourage the administrative boards or other disciplinary bodies within the schools to address cases expeditiously under existing precedent and practice (including taking into account where relevant the voluntary decision to leave the encampment), for all students, including those students eligible thereafter to graduate so that they may do so.”

The email “does not speak to the outcome of disciplinary processes, rather it indicates he would encourage disciplinary bodies to move their processes forward expeditiously, in line with their existing precedents and practices,” Swain wrote.

According to a statement co-signed by Black student groups — including the Black Students Association, Harvard African Students Association, Harvard Caribbean Club, Eritrean and Ethiopian Students Association, Dominican Students Association, Black Men’s Forum, and Black Arts Collective — five Black students, including a member of the unrecognized African and African American Resistance Organization, are being suspended.

“We stand with our peers and community members who have been targeted for standing up for basic human and political rights. An attack on them is an attack on all those who care about the right to protest,” the statement read.

—Staff writers William C. Mao and Dhruv T. Patel contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mnamponsah.

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