May 3, 2024

LIEBERWITZ | Faculty Petition Against Student Suspensions

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As Cornell faculty members, we are outraged by the University administration’s suspension of six students who participated in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment. The six suspended students have represented the encampment in conversations with the Administration. The Cornell administration has targeted these students specifically for being the alleged leaders of student protests. It has unilaterally and summarily imposed this retaliatory sanction without any due process. 

Cornell’s extreme punitive actions are a drastic escalation of the University’s ongoing repression of academic freedom and freedom of expression. The administration claims that they have taken disciplinary action against the students for violating Cornell’s Interim Expressive Activity policy against outdoor camping without prior registration. But this is simply a pretext for the real, disturbing reason for suspending the students — which is to intimidate all protestors and to reduce the six students to bargaining chips. As Provost Kotlikoff wrote earlier this week in an email message to a faculty member, “Please note that [student name]’s temporary suspensions can be lifted if the encampment is ended or moved, but that window is closing.” In other words, Provost Kotlikoff is treating the students’ academic standing and enrollments as hostage to his political goal of minimizing the visibility and impact of student protests. His words place the responsibility for ending or moving the encampment onto six students who are not treated as individuals bearing rights, but are instrumentalized, deprived of fundamental rights and denied lawful process. We call on the University to reverse its suspension of the six student protestors immediately and  to desist from these and other disciplinary measures. 

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. 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. We will not stand by and allow administrators to threaten our students and suppress not only their right to freedom of expression and peaceful protest but the very foundation of our legal and moral obligations.

The University has abused its power under the Student Code of Conduct Procedures “to temporarily suspend” students “where immediate action is necessary to protect … the University community.” The peaceful encampment presents no danger to the University community. There is no violence or threat of violence, no unlawful harassment or discrimination and no threatened harm to public health or safety. The University’s overreach marks a disturbing signal that Cornell is falling in line with other university administrations across the United States who have taken violent actions against students, faculty and staff. 

We demand an end to administrative violence. We demand that the Cornell administration reverse its decision to suspend students. We demand that the administration pledge to protect students’ rights to peacefully assemble. We demand that the administration pledge to keep law enforcement away from our students who are peacefully demonstrating, pursue no disciplinary action against these students and agree to negotiate in order to find a way to meet their demands. 

The suspended students are the best of us. They have chosen to come to Cornell because, as one student put it, “I believed it was the best place for me to learn how I could most effectively use my voice to fight for justice.”

Risa L. Lieberwitz is a Professor of Labor and Employment Law in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She researches academic freedom in the university, freedom of speech, due process and the “corporatization” of the university. She is the President of the Cornell University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors. She can be reached at [email protected]

Department, Program and Organizational Signatures:

Cornell Chapter of the American Association of University Professors

Critical Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Studies

Core Faculty, Department of Anthropology

Faculty, Department of Asian Studies

Faculty, Department of Comparative Literature 

Faculty, Department of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies

Faculty, Department of German Studies

Faculty, Department of History of Art

Faculty, Department of Near Eastern Studies

Faculty, Department of Romance Studies

Faculty, Department of Science and Technology Studies

Core Faculty, Program in Asian American Studies

Diacritics Editorial Board

History of Architecture and Urban Development Committee

Humanities Council

PRICE Initiative (Politics of Race, Immigration, Class and Ethnicity)

Religious Studies Steering Committee

With additional signatures by over 375 Cornell Faculty and Staff.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this letter was sent as a petition to the Cornell administration on April 30.

Editor’s Note (5/5): This letter has been updated to include new departmental signatures and to link a list of faculty signatures.

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