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A protester with a megaphone walking on a street between a wall of protesters and another wall of police

Chicago police keep back activists as workers remove a pro-Palestinian encampment from DePaul University on May 16, 2024.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Dozens of U.S. faculty members have been investigated, suspended or fired for speaking out about Israel and Palestine since the war began Oct. 7. Free speech and academic freedom advocates have been disturbed by the spate of probes and punishments for faculty members’ social media posts, rally speeches, defenses of encampments and other out-of-classroom activities.

But last month something happened that has little, if any, public precedent: A university fired a faculty member almost immediately not for out-of-classroom speech but for an optional course assignment. DePaul University dismissed adjunct Anne d’Aquino midway through her first quarter teaching Health 194: Human Pathogens and Defense.

DePaul spokespeople said students and others had expressed concern about the assignment and an accompanying email from d’Aquino that focused on Palestine and included the terms “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” The assignment asked students to, among other things, explain “the impact of genocide/ethnic cleansing on the health/biology of the people it impacts.”

“By terminating my employment, DePaul violated my academic freedom,” d’Aquino said in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

Classroom instruction comes with a particular set of academic freedom considerations. Teaching is a fundamental part of being a faculty member, and the classroom is an arena they’re supposed to control day-to-day. But it’s also an arena where students may be a captive audience to teaching they disagree with or find to be lacking.

And when students or others do complain, it’s much easier for a university to get rid of a faculty member who doesn’t have tenure protections. But academic freedom defenders say that doesn't make it right to do without due process, which DePaul and other universities promise in their policies. D’Aquino said she has appealed her quick dismissal.

‘A Political Agenda’

D’Aquino began teaching at DePaul April 1, the start of the spring quarter. On April 30, pro-Palestinian students set up an encampment on campus. CBS News Chicago, which first reported on her firing, said d’Aquino taught across from the encampment on the quad.

On May 6, Israel’s military bombed Rafah, a Gazan city on the southern border with Egypt where more than a million Palestinians had fled and were sheltering. At DePaul, president Robert L. Manuel was publicly raising safety concerns that day about the campus encampment, which police would eventually dismantle on May 16.

The Rafah bombing occurred during Week 6 of d’Aquino’s course. The week’s topic was infection and epidemiology, and the original assignment was on the recent, first-known case of a human catching avian flu from a nonhuman mammal. But d’Aquino emailed students an optional alternative assignment.

“Today, Israel rejected a ceasefire deal and continues to bomb Rafah, where over 600,000 children are currently sheltering,” read the description she sent. It went on to state that “many view this as the last phase of the genocide/ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinian people,” and added: “I encourage students to use scientific analysis and critical thinking to understand and communicate the impacts of genocide on human biology, and the creation of a decolonized future that promotes liberation and resists systemic oppression.”

D’Aquino listed seven links for students to read “on decolonizing science, and the intersections of biological sciences, health and history in Palestine.” They included a Guardian article that said “Israel has admitted pathologists harvested organs from dead Palestinians, and others, without the consent of their families—a practice it said ended in the 1990s.”

It was a relevant assignment for the course, d’Aquino said. “For months, scientists and physicians have been warning about the spread of infectious disease in Gaza,” she wrote to Inside Higher Ed. She cited publications by medical and scientific faculty members and the World Health Organization about current disease issues in Gaza.

“The unique contemporary circumstances in Gaza offer an important opportunity to assess factors that accelerate the spread of disease (such as starvation and close living quarters),” she wrote. Microbiologists, she said, can “contribute to the public scientific discourse about how to mitigate any further detrimental health and biological impacts in Gaza and all humanitarian crises.”

D’Aquino sent out the optional assignment in an email that expressed “solidarity to all those who are actively supporting Palestinian liberation (and the liberation of all colonized people), resisting the normalization of ethnic cleansing and demanding divestment from genocide,” and ended with emojis of a Palestinian flag and a watermelon slice. Watermelons, which have the flag’s colors, have been a Palestinian symbol dating back to when Israel used to ban the flag.

The fallout came quickly. D’Aquino said that the day after she sent out the optional assignment, Sarah Connolly, DePaul’s health sciences chair, called her to say that students had complained about it, that it was unrelated to microbiology and that discussing ethnic cleansing and genocide “might make some students feel unsafe in that classroom.” She said Connolly, who didn’t return requests for comment, said she was canceling the next day’s class and would talk to the dean.

On May 8, just two days after d’Aquino sent out the optional assignment, Connolly sent her a two-paragraph termination letter. “You added an assignment … that was unrelated to the course objectives and microbiology,” Connolly wrote. “Students have expressed significant concern about the introduction of political matters into the class. This has negatively impacted the learning environment.” Connolly wrote that “after consulting with the dean’s office, I am terminating your adjunct faculty appointment effective immediately.”

D’Aquino said Connolly had told her in March that “you have the freedom to do what you’d like with the course.” The course was “conceived during the pandemic to examine questions central to microbiology in the context of contemporary health crises,” d'Aquino said, and one of the course objectives on her syllabus, approved by Connolly, was to “connect microbiology knowledge to big picture impacts on individuals and communities.”

“Microbiologists do not function in an isolated bubble removed from the world, and to pretend that they do would not only be a disservice to our public health students but a departure from the manner in which HLTH 194 was conducted in the past,” d’Aquino wrote.

The one-paragraph online course summary says “this course will introduce students to the diverse microorganisms” that harm humans and “focus on the mechanisms of viral and bacterial infection and spread.” The course is supposed to examine antiseptics and other matters, it says, and students are to spend time in the lab identifying species and practicing other “standard microbial techniques.”

‘The First I Have Heard’

The firing letter only mentioned the assignment, alongside the broad reference to students expressing “concern about the introduction of political matters into the class.” But when Inside Higher Ed reached out for comment, university spokespeople brought up the email that accompanied d’Aquino’s optional assignment. One said “students had come forward with concerns about the class prior to the assignment and email.”

When Inside Higher Ed asked d’Aquino for a response, she said, “This is the first I have heard” that the assignment wasn’t the sole reason she was fired. She said Connolly didn’t mention other concerns in their conversation the day before her firing.

Kristin Claes Mathews, DePaul’s senior director of strategic communications, pointed Inside Higher Ed to a May 6 screenshot, posted on Instagram, of the email that d’Aquino sent sharing the optional assignment. The optional assignment and email both “included explicit statements promoting a political agenda unrelated to the course topic,” Mathews told Inside Higher Ed, adding that d’Aquino’s email was “broadly circulated on social media and via email by concerned students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents.” The Instagram account that shared the screenshot, melissaschapman, has 145,000 followers. Alongside the screenshot, the comment said, “every parent should be outraged.”

Furthermore, Mathews said, “students brought forward evidence that the faculty member was devoting a significant amount of class time discussing her support of the encampment, unrelated to the objectives of the course.” D’Aquino denied this, saying she only brought up the encampment briefly in class. She also didn’t “say anything inappropriate during class or over email,” she told Inside Higher Ed.

“I wish DePaul had allowed me to respond to this claim before terminating my employment, consistent with standard academic practice,” d’Aquino said. “It was appropriate, at a time of tremendous upheaval on campus, to acknowledge and briefly address the encampment in class.”

‘Intellectual Sterility’

Those who track and defend academic freedom say the firing of d’Aquino has few if any precedents among the post-Oct. 7 controversies. “I believe this is the only one that we’ve seen that the dismissal has been on the basis of teaching about Palestine,” said Anita Levy, a senior program officer in the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance. She said the majority of disciplinary cases that have come to the AAUP’s attention since Oct. 7 have related to extramural speech.

One close precursor came last fall when Stanford University removed Ameer Hasan Loggins, a lecturer, from a classroom in October and didn’t renew his contract. Loggins has denied accusations by some students that he singled out Jewish students while teaching about Palestine shortly after Oct. 7, and he’s now suing Stanford and a few administrators there.

Mathews said DePaul “strives to honor and align with the spirit of the AAUP guidelines.” But it may have violated the AAUP academic freedom guidelines, which say that “teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject” and also provide due process rights to accused faculty members. Levy called d’Aquino’s firing a “potential violation of her academic freedom.”

Nontenured faculty members like d’Aquino and Loggins are more vulnerable to firings. “Unfortunately, I think there’s a reason why they call contingent faculty members part of the ‘precariat,’” Levy said. Their situation can be precarious. But under AAUP standards, all faculty members, including adjuncts, deserve a hearing before a faculty body in which the burden of proof rests on the administration to show why they should be fired.

DePaul already terminated d’Aquino, but she could conceivably win her job back. Mathews confirmed that all faculty members have appeal rights for alleged academic freedom violations, and the board for those appeals is composed of three tenured faculty members. D’Aquino said she has appealed.

The landmark 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure—which the AAUP created alongside the American Association of Colleges and Universities—says faculty members “should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” But Levy noted subsequent statements have put a “gloss” on that part of the 1940 principles, including a 1970 footnote that says the provision is about avoiding “persistently intruding material which has no relation” to the subject.

And there’s a 2007 AAUP statement, Freedom in the Classroom, that Levy said “gives wide latitude to the faculty member in determining what information is germane.” It says that contemporary calls for instructors to “abjure allusions to persons or events that advance discussion but that some students might fail to perceive to be clearly connected to a course description … would excise ‘freedom in the classroom’ from the 1940 Statement; they would conduce not to learning but to intellectual sterility.”

Amanda Nordstrom, a program officer for campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said last week that the situation at DePaul “smells of violations of academic freedom.”

Public universities are more bound by the First Amendment than private institutions. But while DePaul is a private Catholic institution, Nordstrom noted that it promises faculty members academic freedom in its policies.

Faculty members should have “breathing room to sort of determine how and when and whether they want to tackle material that’s germane to the course,” Nordstrom said. And d’Aquino’s optional assignment, she said, is “clearly germane when I look at it here.”

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