UT Students Sanctioned for Conduct During Pro-Palestinian Protest

Photo by John Anderson

Four students disciplined by the UT-Austin have chosen to accept their punishment for their actions during a pro-Palestinian protest on Dec. 8, 2023.

The students, charged with disruptive conduct, are prohibited from contacting Dean Allan Cole of the School of Social Work and his administrative staff. They’ll also write papers reflecting on their actions and will be suspended if they violate any other university policies before Dec. 31, according to the students’ attorney George Lobb.

The students were protesting UT’s decision to fire two teaching assistants in the School of Social Work who sent their class a message about the Israel-Hamas war. That message expressed disappointment with the university’s silence and directed students to mental health resources.

During a student-led rally protesting the firing decision on Dec. 8, a group of students entered the dean of social work’s private suite to deliver a list of demands, which included reinstating the TAs and protection for Palestinian and pro-Palestinian voices. Sameeha Rizvi, one of the students facing sanctions, said Cole was on a personal phone call and left the room when they entered. After delivering the demands, she said all students left on their own accord.

“Everything we have done was entirely peaceful, and I think was within our range of freedom of speech,” Rizvi told the Chronicle. “The university’s response is incredibly disproportionate to what happened, and it feels like we have been used as scapegoats for whatever political plays are at hand.”

UT has faced similar criticisms from faculty. In December, more than 100 UT faculty signed a letter to UT President Jay Hartzell in response to the termination of the two TAs. Heather Jones was one of them. A nonprofit program director and former adjunct professor in the School of Social Work, Jones says UT’s response to the student protest, “feels really contradictory to principles in the field of social work. One of the ethical principles in the social work profession is that social workers challenge social injustice. In the master’s program, we teach about community organizing and protest movements. Why are we punishing students for using the various skill sets that we teach them?”

Four of the students involved in the demonstration received notice Jan. 17 that the university was investigating their conduct. Valkyrie Church, one of the four, said she and two other students must write a three-page paper reflecting on their participation in the protest and its impacts but cannot defend themselves. “At no point have we been able to actually speak on the intention of this and why this was important,” Church said.

Rizvi, who graduated fall 2023, does not have to write the apology essay but is banned from campus until Dec. 31. UT does not host fall graduation, and Rizvi is not sure if she can attend her own or her sister’s graduation in the spring. George Lobb, the students’ attorney, told the Chronicle the university refused to clarify whether she could attend and refused to adjust the agreement to include an exception for graduation.

Lobb said the students chose not to appeal the decision because it would go through the university’s student appeal board, whose members are appointed by UT. “We realized we were not going to get a fair process,” he said.

Lobb pointed out the hypocrisy of the university punishing the four students but not three men claiming to be Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers who harassed students at a Palestinian Solidarity Committee meeting Oct. 12, 2023.

Church said while she and her fellow students have accepted the sanctions, students will continue to protest. “UT can say what they want to, but students will make it their campus,” Church said. “We are not the only ones protesting this, we are not the only ones upset. UT needs to understand that.”