SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: November 13, 2023

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):Barnard College

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On November 13, 2023, Barnard College’s administration released revised policies that expand the definition of “political activity” prohibited on campus and require departments to submit the contents of their websites to the Office of the Provost for review and approval. The college made the policy changes quietly, without broad consultation.

The policy changes came a month after a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, during which over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and more than 200 abducted, and the Israeli military’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of early April 2024, has reportedly killed more than 33,000 Palestinians. The policy revisions went into effect about three weeks after Barnard’s Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) published a statement of solidarity with students experiencing a variety of emotional responses to the October 7 attack and ongoing bombardment in Gaza. Barnard’s administration unilaterally deleted the statement the following day (see report).

In late October and early November, Barnard’s administration rewrote several policies related to political statements and campus events. This included revisions, dated November 13, to the Political Activity Policy and the Website Governance policy. The revised policies expanded the definition of political activity from actions related to specifically electoral and partisan politics to include political statements, broadly defined as written commentary on the positions of public officials and government bodies or that advocate for particular political outcomes. The revised Political Activity Policy prohibits members of Barnard College from expressing political statements in physical and virtual spaces, including websites, and gives Barnard’s administration the latitude to make further unilateral revisions to the policy, specifying that changes may be made “at any time without notice.” Under the revised Website Governance Policy, all academic departments are required to submit new content on their websites for review by the Office of the Provost, and Barnard’s administration may revise any content on the colleges website, including departmental pages, “without notice.”

Scholars at Risk is concerned about a higher education institution adopting—without transparency or consultation with the wider community—an expansive and restrictive policy on political and academic expression on campus. While higher education officials have an obligation to ensure the safety of their communities, they also have a responsibility not to interfere with political and academic expression, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Such actions have a chilling effect on academic freedom and university autonomy, and undermine democratic society generally.