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A group of protesters gather outside a building at MIT.

Pro-Palestinian protesters gather outside an MIT building on May 6, the same day police swept the pro-Palestinian encampment on the institution’s campus.

When Zeno, a second-year MBA student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, learned that he had received an interim suspension for participating in pro-Palestinian protests on the university’s campus, his first worry wasn’t his upcoming final exams or even if he would be able to complete his degree at the prestigious institution. It was whether he and his daughter would have somewhere to sleep in the coming days.

Zeno, who is identified only by his surname for privacy, is one of over 2,400 graduate students who live in one of MIT’s eight graduate student residence buildings, and one of over 400 who live on campus with their families.

On May 8, he received notification from the university that he was receiving an interim suspension, which meant he would be barred from campus and evicted from his housing effective immediately—though the next day, university leaders told students they could have until May 15, one week later, to leave.

Zeno was among the students MIT had asked to leave their encampment by 2:30 p.m. on May 6 and were informed that failing to do so could result in being evicted from their housing. According to the university and news reports from that day, all but a handful of people left, but protesters subsequently rallied just outside the encampment, eventually tearing down the barriers surrounding the area and re-establishing the encampment.

In the suspension notice the university sent to Zeno, administrators say they are investigating his conduct at the May 6 rally, which he told Inside Higher Ed he did participate in. A later communication listed six policies he is accused of violating, including policies regarding disorderly conduct, property damage and the use of campus facilities.

The suspended MIT students aren’t alone. As pro-Palestinian encampments have sprung up on campuses across the United States, numerous students have received suspensions and expulsions and been barred from campus, restricting their ability to access their housing and dining.

Perhaps most notably, Barnard College, an affiliate of Columbia University, evicted over 50 student protesters after New York police swept an encampment on the university’s campus on April 18; three days after the bans were handed down, Barnard announced that it had reached resolutions with the suspended students, and most would be allowed to return to campus immediately.

The punishments have raised eyebrows for protesters and their supporters, who have expressed anger that their universities would take away access to housing, dining, and, for those with university jobs, income, prior to holding disciplinary hearings.

“These interim suspensions are causing noninterim damage. You can't have an interim punishment that causes long-term damage if you haven’t had due process,” Zeno told Inside Higher Ed.

Interim measures like suspensions and banning students from campus are usually reserved for extreme circumstances that threaten the safety and welfare of the community, according to Jim Neumeister, senior research scientist in the Higher Education Analytics Center at NORC at the University of Chicago, a research firm. But, he said, universities typically have their own metric for what constitutes a threat to safety and welfare and, as long as they follow their own policies, are within their rights to dole out these punishments.

Brian Glick, the treasurer for the Association of Student Conduct Administration, said in an email to Inside Higher Ed that he could not speak to any specific cases, but that, broadly, property damage, violence, threats of violence and major interruptions to university operations are all potential reasons a university would consider removing a student from campus on an interim basis.

“Interim action of any kind … is an exception rather than a rule, thus these actions should not be used broadly but infrequently,” he wrote.

Finding Housing in Cambridge

Zeno had nowhere to go on such short notice. It didn’t help that rent for two-bedroom apartments in Cambridge, Mass., where MIT is located, cost an average of $4,065 per month, according to The family also had to stay within range of his daughter’s school; the child is disabled and has thrived under a curriculum of highly personalized special education at her current school. Apartment hunting was made all the more difficult because his wife was out of town on a work trip, unable to assist with packing or touring apartments.

“We found one that would be in our [price] range that would also be within distance of our daughter’s school,” Zeno said. “But it was very small, and it looked like it needed to be refurbished. And for $3,000 a month, a little two bedroom, it looked quite shabby. It didn’t look like a place I’d feel comfortable having my daughter.”

Eventually, he said, the university offered him a special deal allowing him and his family to stay in their on-campus apartment if he agreed not to participate in any more protests. He believes administrators changed their minds due to public pressure after news outlets like the Boston Globe reported on his situation.

Other suspended students still had to leave on the 15th, however. Prahlad Iyengar, a first-year electrical engineering graduate student who lives in graduate student housing, packed three bags with essentials and moved into the basement of a friend and fellow protester Wednesday morning.

He said the reality of the eviction did not set in until he was on his way to his new, temporary home.

“I was walking across the Harvard Bridge, which connects Cambridge and Boston … realizing I had nowhere to go but for the generosity that is in the Coalition for Palestine,” he said, referring to a group of 10 MIT student organizations that set up the encampment. “That was the moment I realized how surreal it was.”

The university has also suspended the monthly stipend he receives from MIT’s Presidential Graduate Fellowship Program.

Iyengar said he was dissatisfied with the support he was provided—or rather, not provided—by MIT during his move. No one offered to help him find a place to live or move his belongings. Kimberly Allen, an MIT spokesperson, told Inside Higher Ed in an email the university “has assigned a dean to every single student facing interim suspension to work with them on support and resources” but Iyengar said no one reached out to assist him in his search for a place to stay. Zeno was assigned an assistant dean, who he said acted as a liaison between himself and the university but hasn’t otherwise provided any support.

Allen declined to comment on specific conduct cases or share how many students, in total, had been evicted.

The university has also faced criticism that it did not follow the necessary procedures needed to legally kick students out of their campus housing. Cambridge-based attorneys Lee D. Goldstein and Jeffery M. Feuer wrote a letter to MIT’s administration on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild saying the university could not evict students without a court order, arguing that the students have the same tenant protections as any other renter in Massachusetts.

“We therefore ask that you immediately rescind the part of the ‘suspension notices’ that orders students to vacate their housing without any court order in a summary process action requiring them to do so,” the letter reads. “Should it wish to continue to try to evict students from their housing, fairness, equity, and the laws of Massachusetts require it to utilize the statutory summary process procedure and obtain a court judgment against each individual student, awarding possession of said housing to MIT.”

A Test for Disciplinary Policy

In an FAQ on MIT’s website, university administrators described why they felt the interim suspensions were an appropriate step to take.

“The encampment had come to infringe on the rights and privileges of others on campus and had effectively commandeered a key communal space,” the webpage reads.

“In addition, administration had ample reason to believe—based on experiences on other campuses, and on the increasingly unstable interactions of groups within and outside MIT around the encampment—that steps were needed to end this situation or risk an altercation that could lead to injury,” it says, stressing that students had been given ample warning that suspensions would be coming.

The FAQ also explains that university disciplinary policy allows the institution to take immediate, interim disciplinary action as needed “in order to protect the health, safety, wellbeing, or educational or working experience of students, employees, or the broader MIT community; to maintain academic integrity; to uphold Institute values; to end ongoing or prevent further misconduct.”

Neumeister, the research scientist at NORC, said it is difficult for universities to handle such unusually large influxes of student conduct violations. As they do so, it’s important to ensure that universities are considering each case individually, even though most alleged violations happened during protests and encampments, which are by nature collective actions.

“The challenge for many institutions is they have to follow their process, a process that I think for many institutions is designed for exceptional circumstances and individual exceptions,” he said.

Zeno’s hearing is scheduled for this week; Iyengar is awaiting a date for his. Until then, Iyengar will be in the dark about how long he will be away from his apartment, without income and whether he will still be required to pay rent for the duration of his contract.

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