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Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, American studies, announced his support for encampment protesters on April 26.

May 2, 2024

Faculty Show Support for Encampment, Denounce University Response

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“I learned about the encampment when I came to teach my class on Thursday,” said Prof. Natalie Melas, comparative literature, about the encampment established on the Arts Quad on April 27. 

The protest has received backlash from the administration and has been met with divided responses from students. Across the country and at Cornell, many faculty members are now coming to the defense of students and standing in solidarity with the protesters. 

Since Thursday, faculty members have become involved with the protest, with some delivering speeches and canceling their lectures. Professors have also played a role in providing more active support for protestors, engaging in discussions with the administration, giving demonstrators supplies and participating in the encampment.

Prof. Jess Newman, feminist, gender and sexuality studies, said she wanted to show support for those in the protest, some of whom are her own students. She said she is also dropping off supplies, helping protesters read University policies and monitoring student interactions with police. 

But Newman emphasized that, to her, the pedagogical aspect of the protest, including teach-ins and office hours arranged by faculty, are the most valuable support they can offer students. 

“The students that are in the encampment as well as those running support in various ways are living up to the tradition of civil disobedience of using the knowledge that they gain on this campus for support for liberation and a more just future,” Newman said. 

Melas said she was impressed with how organized the encampment was, referring to an intake form protest participants have to sign in order to enter the encampment. She said she was taken by the educational aspect of the protest.

“In a way it feels to me like it is still the campus, it is just another form of learning that is happening,” Melas said. 

Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, American studies, who is Jewish and has relatives in Israel, told The Sun he supported the encampment protests. He said the administration “missed an opportunity” to showcase freedom of expression on campus by endorsing the protests. Cheyfitz, who has taught at Cornell for 20 years, said he has never seen a violent protest during his time teaching at the University.

“What I’ve seen is a peaceful group of people who are taking care of themselves, not obstructing anyone or obstructing anyone from crossing this quadrangle, who are there for a very important reason,” Cheyfitz said.

On April 29 at 1:10 p.m., students and faculty from the architecture department in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning staged a walkout in support of the encampment where about 30 people sat in groups for a discussion and built a tent that was donated to the encampment. 

Prof. Sean Anderson, architecture, said the walkout furthered conversations about the role of architecture in conflict. 

“Architecture is very much implicit in the subjugation of people, and that architecture and landscape is very much implicated by the violence we are seeing in Palestine today,” Anderson said.

Prof. Esra Akcan, architecture, said the establishment of encampments in the U.S. or college campuses is not a recent development. She said encampments during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement provided a means of expression for people who felt they had no other option, explaining that she thought the response from universities across the country was disproportionate in relation to the actions of students.

“This is a form of protest. This is a form of free speech that should be allowed, and I find suspensions and definitely police violence, police interventions extremely disproportionate for what it is,” Akcan said. “It’s not a form of protest that is too out of the ordinary. In the past it has been employed by students and citizens who find no other way of raising their voices.”

On April 29, Provost Michael Kotlikoff issued an email to faculty members and staff stating that negotiations would not be possible as long as protesters remained on the Arts Quad encampment. President Martha Pollack issued a similar email statement to the larger Cornell community on Monday. 

On April 30, over 300 members of faculty, including representatives from 15 academic departments — including comparative literature; German studies; Romance studies; history of art; Near Eastern studies; Science and technology studies and feminist, gender and sexuality studies — issued an open letter addressed to the administration condemning the suspension of four students on April 26. 

“By imposing unwarranted and excessive sanctions on peaceful protesters, the Cornell administration has demonstrated that it is willing to sacrifice our students’ academic standing and futures in the name of political expediency,” the letter read. “We will not go about business as usual when our students are deprived of rights, banished from the Cornell community and their academic future put in danger.” 

The letter demands the administration reverse the suspensions of students and pledge students protesters would not face disciplinary action. They also demand for the administration to pledge not to call for law enforcement intervention at the encampment and to engage in negotiations with student protesters.

“When the University threatens to take actions that affect the academic standing of students then it is no longer a question about your opinions on one political issue or another,” Melas said. “It has to do with the ethics of teaching.”