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: December 15, 2023

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Indiana University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On December 15, 2023, Indiana University (IU) suspended tenured political science and Middle Eastern studies Professor Abdulkader Sinno after he helped IU’s Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), a student group, organize an on-campus event.

Sinno’s suspension 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 January, had reportedly killed more than 23,000 Palestinians. The violence led to heightened tensions on campuses in the United States and other countries. During the same week that Sinno was suspended, IU also canceled an exhibition of artwork by Samia Halaby, a Palestinian-American and IU alumna (see report).

On November 6, Sinno submitted a room request on behalf of the PSC for an on-campus event hosting Miko Peled, an Israeli-American veteran of the Israeli military and a peace activist. The event was approved and scheduled for November 16.

On November 14, two days prior to the event, the chair of IU’s Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures Department told Sinno to cancel the room reservation, pointing to the fact that the room reservation request had not included the fact that it was a PSC-sponsored event and that Sinno had instead listed his own department, giving the impression that it was a Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures-sponsored event. Sinno acceded and canceled the reservation, and advised PCS to rebook the room separately (see report).

On November 15, State Representative and US Senate candidate Jim Banks sent a letter to IU demanding that the university brief his office on anti-semitic incidents on campus and the university’s efforts to combat anti-semitism. Banks’ letter specifically mentioned the Palestine Solidarity Committee and asked whether the university had received “reports of harassment or illegal activity” by the student group. Banks further noted, “As a lawmaker, I would note that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits anti-Jewish and antisemitic discrimination. If IU administrators condone or tolerate campus antisemitism, the university could lose access to federal funding.”

That same day, members of the administration filed a complaint against Sinno for errors made in filling out the room reservation. Among the reasons for the complaint were that Sinno’s room reservation request was misleading in indicating that it was for an academic, department-sponsored event rather than for a student organization; that Sinno responded “no” when asked on the reservation form whether he was filling it out for someone else; that Sinno attended the event when it went ahead without authorization; and that Sinno did not inform IU employees of the event’s cancellation. The complaint led to an investigation by IU Vice Provost Carrie Docherty.

On December 15, after Docherty’s investigation had concluded, the vice provost suspended Sinno from all teaching activities until the Fall 2024 semester. Docherty also removed Sinno from his position as a faculty adviser for the Palestine Solidarity Committee, Muslim Student Association, and Middle Eastern Student Association at IU for a period of one year, and prohibited him from engaging in “any and all student-related activities.” In the letter issuing Sinno’s suspension, Docherty wrote to Sinno that she had “serious concerns about the effect your behavior may have on members of the campus community. These concerns are enhanced by the potential impact that your inattention to university compliance requirements has on the students you influence in the classroom and in your role as a student organization faculty advisor.”

In suspending Sinno, the university failed to follow the proper disciplinary channels outlined in the Policy on Faculty Disciplinary Procedures. The policy requires that complaints be filed with the Faculty Misconduct Review Committee, which has responsibility for holding hearings and making recommendations on sanctions. Instead of following this procedure, Docherty independently investigated Sinno and issued the suspension without the committee’s involvement. In response to Sinno’s suspension, over 350 individuals signed a faculty-led petition in support of him.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the suspension of a tenured professor without following proper due process and under political pressure. University authorities have an obligation to refrain from retaliatory actions intended to punish, restrict, or chill the exercise of academic freedom and should employ transparent, fair processes when engaging in disciplinary actions. Government officials must also refrain from interfering in the functioning of higher education and research institutions. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, suspensions stemming from such activity undermines academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.

Sources: [suspension letter]