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 16, 2023

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):University of Arizona

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On November 16, 2023, the University of Arizona (UArizona)’s College of Education suspended Professors Rebecca Lopez, assistant professor of practice, and Rebecca Zapien, community liaison, both in Teaching, Learning, and Sociocultural Studies program. The two professors were reinstated at the beginning of December, but were not allowed to finish teaching their course.

At the end of October and beginning of November, Lopez and Zapien, who co-teach two courses – “Structured English Immersion” and “Cultural Pluralism for Young Children” – led a series of in-class conversations on the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine, particularly focused on the impact on Palestinian children in Gaza. According to the Middle East Studies Association, the courses regularly included current events conversations, highlighting the connections between those events and course material.

The conversations occurred against the backdrop of 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 mid-February 2024, has reportedly killed more than 29,000 Palestinians. The violence has led to heightened tensions around speech on campus in the United States and around the world.

Following the conversations, some students registered complaints with UArizona’s Office of Institutional Equity. In addition, on November 12, the group Israel War Room, which describes itself as combating misleading narratives about Israel, posted a video of one of those class conversations. The video was accompanied by commentary: “In an education class at (the UA), these professors chose to discuss the current Israel-Gaza war and the broader Israeli/Palestinian conflict. What was shared was an entirely BIASED, ANTISEMITIC, BLATANTLY FALSE, and TERRORISM-SUPPORTING narrative.” That same day Arizona state legislator Alma Hernandez retweeted Israel War Room’s threat, commenting “they are spreading misinformation and propaganda that will only lead to more hate against our community.”

UArizona’s College of Education responded to the complaints by placing Lopez and Zapien on paid administrative leave pending the results of an investigation. The investigation was opened under two sections of the Faculty Handbook – UHAP 7.01 Professional Conduct and UHAP 2.10 Political Activity and Lobbying – and two sections of the staffing and human resources policies – USM 5-107 University Staff Standards of Conduct Policy and HR-104 Political Activity and Lobbying. The four policies state that employees of the university may not conduct political activities or political lobbying on campus, with a particular focus on elections, and that employees of the university are responsible for maintaining a safe and inclusive environment on campus.

The professors’ suspension sparked an outcry and protests among UArizona students and other faculty members.

After the investigation found no evidence that either Lopez or Zapien had committed any wrongdoing, their suspensions were reversed. However, the College of Education announced without explanation that the department head would finish teaching the final two weeks of Lopez’s and Zapien’s courses.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the suspension and investigation into faculty members, and about their removal from teaching for the remainder of the semester once found to have engaged in no wrongdoing, in apparent retaliation for the exercising of the right to academic freedom during class discussions by teaching on a disfavored topic. Even where they end in a finding that the accused faculty members were not at fault, investigations into teaching on disfavored topics are unduly burdensome and disruptive, and have a chilling impact on academic freedom. Absent evidence of professional misconduct, the removal from teaching is a violation of scholars’ academic freedom. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such actions have a chilling effect on academic freedom and materials taught in courses, and undermine democratic society more generally.