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 22, 2023

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):University of Texas-Austin

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On November 22, 2023, the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas, Austin (UT-Austin) removed two teaching assistants from their positions after they shared a message titled “mental health and violence in Gaza” with students enrolled in the course “Women and Madness.”

In late October or early November 2023, a student in Women and Madness asked the professor, Lauren Gulbas, and the two TAs, Callie Kennedy and Parham Daghighi, to address the mental health needs of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students. The request came against the backdrop of a surprise Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 that left over 1,000 Israelis and foreign nationals dead and more than 200 abducted, and the subsequent Israeli military bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, at the time of the student’s request, had reportedly killed around 10,000 Palestinians.

In response to the request, Kennedy and Daghighi prepared a statement, which Gulbas helped edit. The TAs posted the statement on the morning of November 16.

The statement read in part, “As Women & Madness is a class that is heavily oriented around mental health, we wanted to send a message to acknowledge the mental health implications of the current escalation of violence in Gaza.” It included several paragraphs describing mental health resources on campus and counseling in Texas specifically for Palestinians. The statement concluded by saying, “We firmly support the rights and autonomy of Palestinians, Indigenous people, and displaced peoples across the globe, knowing that oppression results in trauma and negative mental health outcomes that can span generations.”

On the evening of November 16, Gulbas informed Kennedy and Daghighi that a student had complained about the statement, saying that they no longer felt comfortable in Kennedy’s and Daghighi’s section.

On November 22, Kennedy and Daghighi received a removal letter from Allan Cole, the dean of the School of Social Work. Cole’s letter contended that the material in their statement was, “unrelated to the course and inappropriate given the setting” and inaccurately stated that Kennedy and Daghighi had not received approval from Gulbas before sending it to students. It further stated that the statement “shows that you lack the professional judgment required for this role.” Cole wrote that Kennedy and Daghighi were to be removed from their positions immediately and could not contact the students. They would also not be reappointed as TAs during the spring semester. Later, following student protests and written letters of protest from both faculty and students, the School of Social Work offered Kennedy and Daghighi research assistantships for the spring semester.

Kennedy and Daghighi submitted a grievance opposing their removal. The outcome of that grievance process has not been reported publicly.

The decision to remove Kennedy and Daghighi summarily appeared to violate the university’s procedural rules concerning a TA’s right to receive written notice of, and time to respond to, disciplinary actions.

A UT-Austin spokesperson later stated that Kennedy and Daghighi were “administratively reassigned,” not disciplined.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the removal of instructors from a teaching position in retaliation for academic expression concerning matters related to course content. Higher education authorities have an obligation not to interfere with such activity, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Moreover, higher education authorities should employ transparent, fair processes when engaging in disciplinary actions. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom, and undermine academic freedom and democratic society more generally.

Sources:
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/faculty-issues/academic-freedom/2023/12/20/ut-austin-yanks-tas-who-gave-mental-health
https://www.dallasnews.com/news/education/2023/12/01/message-about-gaza-leads-to-removal-of-ut-teaching-assistants
https://www.kxan.com/news/two-ut-teaching-assistants-lose-their-positions-after-message-about-palestine/
https://www.kltv.com/2024/02/03/ut-austin-investigates-students-amid-tensions-over-israel-hamas-war/
https://www.kut.org/education/2023-12-14/ut-austin-teaching-assistants-tas-removed-israel-palestinian-gaza-war-university-of-texas
https://mesana.org/advocacy/committee-on-academic-freedom/2023/12/11/letter-to-the-university-of-texas-austin-concerning-the-arbitrary-dismissal-of-two-teaching-assistants
https://aauputaustin.files.wordpress.com/2023/12/ut-austin-aaup-chapter-to-provost-wood-and-dean-cole-26-nov-2023.pdf
https://drive.google.com/file/d/1dIq8vU0eGDWNj2VcRljN6Zs0ORlPVtJh/view
https://www.thefire.org/research-learn/callie-kennedy-and-parham-daghighi-canvas-message-november-2023