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Probation Will Not Stop Our Fight Against Genocide

In May, more than 200 people gathered in Harvard Yard to protest the University's disciplinary decisions for students who had participated in the Harvard Yard encampment.
In May, more than 200 people gathered in Harvard Yard to protest the University's disciplinary decisions for students who had participated in the Harvard Yard encampment. By Addison Y. Liu
By Elizabeth S. Ross and Sal E. Suri
Elizabeth S. Ross is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Sal E. Suri is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

On June 21, we were placed on probation by Harvard for nonviolently protesting the ongoing genocide of Palestinians.

Since October, we have witnessed Israel commit brutal atrocities against Palestinians in Gaza. Our news feeds have been inundated with images of city blocks leveled by Israeli carpet bombing and Palestinian parents clutching the lifeless bodies of their children.

As graduate students, our studies are haunted by the destruction of every university in Gaza and the martrying of hundreds of our colleagues by Israel in relentless acts of scholasticide. Our work is punctuated by reports of the Israeli military’s unspeakable crimes.

Witnessing this genocide has prompted widespread pro-Palestine action on our campus. Protestors have responded to calls from Workers in Palestine and the Birzeit University Union of Professors and Employees with a campus-wide divestment campaign that demands an end to Harvard’s financial complicity in this ongoing depravity.

But at every turn, Harvard has chosen to punish pro-Palestine students and student workers through disciplinary processes that have ranged from opaque to downright absurd.

In mid-May, we each received letters from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Administrative Board alleging we “were observed taking part in an unauthorized encampment occupation” — Harvard's Gaza Solidarity encampment — that had “caused significant disruption.”

GSAS has now placed us on a one-year probation for these charges, though it remains totally unclear what specific policies the encampment, or we as individuals, violated. It now seems that the administration — and, in a disturbingly McCarthyist turn, some of the faculty tasked with disciplining us — understand political dissent to be a violation of policy.

At our verdict meetings we were not presented with any documentation whatsoever of how we, as individuals, disrupted Harvard’s campus.

By subjecting us to this disciplinary process, the University has implicated its students in materials that could be subject to congressional subpoenas and could have been used as evidence if criminal charges were brought against protesters — a move that is ethically dubious at best and morally reprehensible at worst.

Ultimately, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences followed the College’s lead, handing down sanctions unprecedented in recent history and vacant of due process.

Notably, after the May 14 email from interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 urged the school administrative boards to “address cases expeditiously under existing precedent and practice,” other graduate schools at Harvard appear not to have pursued serious sanctions. The severity of the College and GSAS sanctions stands in stark contrast with the actions of their peers.

In any other employment setting, the cases presented against us would not withstand scrutiny. If the Ad Boards purport to encourage reflection and learning, then these processes would have been instructional. Instead, we found them deeply confusing, biased, and unfair.

Harvard’s administration, the media, and political leaders have demonized our movement, rendering even the idea of “due process” utter fiction.

The University never articulated how the specific actions of individual students involved with the encampment warranted sanction, instead punishing alleged protesters indiscriminately for the supposed infractions of the encampment as a whole. This failure seems to be a tool of strategic ambiguity employed by the University to enable the arbitrary and authoritarian enforcement of disciplinary policies according to an antidemocratic rule book that has been weaponized to undermine protest action and free speech on campus since the 1960s.

What we have learned from the Ad Board process is that Harvard cares more about pleasing its donors, placating vocal and reactionary public figures, and maintaining its grass than it does the thousands of community members calling for divestment from large-scale human rights abuses. That Harvard is willing to break with existing precedent and past practice in an obvious instance of the Palestine exception to free speech. And that Harvard prioritizes economic returns (unsuccessfully) over its students and student workers, acting as a corporation first and an educational institution second.

Just two years ago, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow raised a Ukrainian flag over Harvard Yard after what he called a “capricious and senseless” Russian invasion. Naively, we understood this to mean that the University opposes all capricious and senseless violence.

Instead, Harvard has remained silent as Israel commits war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank funded in part by the University’s investments and, conveniently, established a policy of near-institutional neutrality rather than addressing its 50 billion dollar conglomerate of genocide-enabling hedge funds.

For Harvard to now punish students for protesting these investments is a disgraceful absurdity. It reinforces Harvard’s allegiance to a white supremacist world order that only recognizes war crimes when they are committed against people racialized as white — an attitude equally apparent in Harvard’s responses to protests against injustices in South Africa and Vietnam.

As we reminded Ad Board members, the disciplinary cases brought before them represent the nonviolent efforts of students protesting material, institutional, and cultural complicity in settler-colonial oppression and genocide.

Such dissent is emblematic of a thoughtful and critical student body, and a testament to (some) Harvard faculty that their students are astute and resolute enough to turn the academic theory we have learned, from Fanon to Said to Trouillot, into praxis.

A university that disciplines its students and student workers for peacefully criticizing its administration, its investments, or its leadership betrays its mission and purpose. If the University’s administrators think arbitrary punishments will stop us from raising our voices against one of the gravest moral catastrophes of our time, then they severely underestimate the commitment of our community to Palestinian liberation.

Elizabeth S. Ross is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Sal E. Suri is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

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