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: April 26, 2024

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Cornell University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

Between April 26 and May 1, 2024, Cornell University suspended six students for their participation in a peaceful pro-Palestinian protest and encampment on campus.

The suspensions took place six months 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 June 2024, has reportedly killed more than 36,000 Palestinians. In mid-April, students across the US began setting up tent encampments on their campuses, often advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza and that their universities divest from companies that do business with Israel.

Early in the morning on April 25, nearly 50 students affiliated with the Coalition for Mutual Liberation (CML), a pro-Palestine coalition of over 40 on- and off-campus organizations, set up an encampment on the Arts Quad. Their demands included that Cornell divest from companies that profit from Israeli military action and remove all police from campus, replacing them with an emergency response team composed of healthcare workers and first responders trained in de-escalation. Within a few hours, the university’s administration told the students to remove the tents by 1pm or face disciplinary action, including possible suspension. The administration gave the students the option to move the encampment to a less trafficked area on campus; the protesters refused to move. Later that afternoon, the Vice President for University Relations, Joel M. Malina stated that the protest’s organizers were in violation of university policy for putting up the tents and that the students involved would be suspended and faculty and staff issued HR referrals.

When the students did not move before the 1pm deadline, Cornell’s administration extended the deadline to 8pm. The students again refused to take down the encampment and leave.

The following day, on April 26, the university notified the four student protest organizers, including two international graduate students, via email that they were suspended for their participation in the protest; more specifically for the use of tents–which violated Cornell’s new Interim Expressive Activity policy’s clause on outdoor camping without prior registration–and for refusing to leave the Arts Quad. The suspended students also reported being barred from campus; Cornell denied this, stating that suspended students would not be denied housing or dining privileges.

On April 27, Malina confirmed the suspensions and stated the student group that had originally applied for approval to hold the protest had been suspended for applying for approval under “false pretenses,” apparently because the application had not indicated that they planned to set up tents. Malina also said that Cornell was preparing to issue further suspensions to students and HR referrals for employees,

On May 1, the university reportedly suspended two more student protest leaders. It was reported that all six of the suspended students are at risk of being withdrawn from their 2024 spring semester courses, which were scheduled to finish a few later, as well as losing all academic credit.

The encampment remained until May 14, at which point the CML voluntarily removed the tents, stating that they were ending the current phase of protest.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the suspension of peaceful student protesters. While university authorities have an obligation to take all reasonable measures to ensure the safety of students and university personnel and should endeavor to prevent disruptions that inappropriately inhibit the functioning of or access to higher education, they must do so consistent with their responsibility to ensure academic freedom and free expression on campus. The punishment of nonviolent student expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.