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Students, faculty urge UT Austin to reinstate TAs removed for comments on violence in Gaza

A photo of the UT tower, framed by trees, on a blue sky day in Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
UT removed teaching assistants Callie Kennedy and Parham Daghighi from their positions over a message they shared with their class.

UT Austin says it has launched an investigation into pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus in the past week. The protests were largely in response to the removal of two teaching assistants accused of making unprofessional comments to students about the Israel-Hamas war.

“Protesters crossed the line of acceptable behavior and violated University rules multiple times last week,” the university said Wednesday in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We will not tolerate disruptions to the teaching and research activities of our students, faculty, and staff; our campus; or events.”

One of the demonstrations took place at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work last Friday. The Austin American-Statesman reported protesters brought a list of demands to the school’s dean.

UT officials said student protesters entered a private office and prevented an official from leaving. The Statesman reported the building was locked after students left the office.

"Actions taken toward a University leader on Friday stem from intentionally false narratives and a coordinated disinformation campaign," UT said in the same statement, warning it will punish anyone who violated its rules, policies or the law. “We will protect speech, but we will not tolerate harassment, disruption, and dishonesty."

Teaching assistants criticize UT

UT removed graduate students Callie Kennedy and Parham Daghighi from their teaching assistant positions over a message they shared with their class that outlined mental health resources for students if they were struggling in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. The message was shared with a mental health-focused class called “Women and Madness.”

Kennedy told KUT she and Daghighi began working on a message after hearing from a student seeking support as Israel’s attacks on Gaza intensified. They said their supervising professor knew they were working on the message and reviewed it.

“A student of mine approached me and asked the class to address the mental health needs of Palestinian, Muslim and Arab students,” Kennedy said.

In the message, Kennedy and Daghighi outlined mental health resources available to students, including one that was specifically offering free counseling to Palestinians in Texas. They also expressed disappointment with UT’s response to the conflict.

“As your teaching assistants, we feel it is important to be clear that we do not support the University's silence around the suffering many of our students, staff, and faculty are experiencing on campus,” they wrote.

UT President Jay Hartzell said in an Oct. 17 message to students and staff that he had “zero tolerance” for hateful actions targeting Jewish, Palestinian and Muslim communities. But the teaching assistants noted in their message the university did not comment after three men disrupted an educational event on campus about the Palestinian territories and their history.

Kennedy and Daghighi concluded their message to students by expressing support for the rights of marginalized groups and asking students to share any questions or concerns.

“We firmly support the rights and autonomy of Palestinians, Indigenous people, and displaced peoples across the globe, knowing that oppression results in trauma and negative mental health outcomes that can span generations,” they wrote.

UT said in a statement that Kennedy and Daghighi’s message was “inappropriate,” adding they “unprofessionally misused the official University classroom communication platform to send a personal political message to the students in a course.”

UT faculty members demand Kennedy and Daghighi be reinstated

Professor Lauren Gutterman said removing Kennedy and Daghighi from their teaching assistant positions over the message is a disproportionate punishment. The associate professor of American Studies is one of more than 100 faculty at UT Austin who sent a letter to President Hartzell this week calling for both TAs to be reinstated and receive a public apology.

“This example of the two TAs being relieved of their teaching duties is part of a broader trend that we’ve seen on UT Austin’s campus over the past couple of months related to the silencing and erasure of Palestinian, Muslim, Arab students and allied students,” she said.

Gutterman added that, as a professor, she regularly shares mental health resources with her students.

“So, the argument that the TAs acted inappropriately by directing students in a mental health class, in a class directed at first years and aimed at helping them access resources on campus is very strange to me,” she said.

The faculty letter, in addition to calling for the TAs to be reinstated, calls for UT to have a clear policy that retaliation against instructors and students for exercising their free speech rights won’t be tolerated. The letter asks that Hartzell express equal support for Palestinian and Jewish students. It also urges him to take tangible steps to ensure Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students feel safe on campus.

“There’s this kind of idea circulating that universities or UT Austin has to choose between protecting Jewish students on one hand and Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and allied students on the other and this is a false choice,” Gutterman said.

She says the idea also erases Jewish students who are pro-Palestinian.

Teaching assistants shocked by UT's response

For Kennedy and Daghighi, the way things have unfolded since they sent their message to students is nothing short of shocking.

“About a week after sending the message we woke up to a dismissal letter from the Dean of the School of Social Work informing us that the message we sent was unprompted, that it did not pertain to the course material and that it lacked approval from our supervising professor,” Kennedy said. “Each of those claims we believe are factually incorrect.”

Daghighi told KUT that between sending the message and receiving the dismissal letter their supervising professor told them a student had raised concerns about their message, sharing they no longer felt safe in the course.

“That definitely impacted us and we made known during the meeting we had with our professor that we were completely willing and definitely wanted to do any and everything we could do in order to seek redress for some of the harm that might have happened,” he said.

Daghighi added the dismissal letter was made more painful because of statements it included questioning their professional judgment and describing them as untrustworthy. Both were in their fifth semester as TAs for the School of Social Work. Kennedy said that before this incident, the feedback they had gotten in their roles was overwhelmingly positive.

“We feel that those allegations are unnecessarily personal, retaliatory and can’t be considered anything other than pretextual based on the prior feedback we received,” she said.

Kennedy said as social work students there is a code of ethics they must abide by that includes meeting the needs of vulnerable and oppressed groups. “Frankly [it] felt like we had just kind of been abandoned and cast aside for this one action we had taken,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy and Daghighi consider their next steps

Daghighi said their immediate dismissal also appears to have violated their right within the university to due process.

“What feels like an important point was that the fact of due process not being followed on multiple fronts was something that basically we had to figure out for ourselves,” he said.

Daghighi said he and Kennedy began to educate themselves on UT policies and what their rights were and they ultimately filed a formal grievance over due process violations.

At this time, UT has prohibited Daghighi and Kennedy from serving as teaching assistants during the spring semester but said in a statement they were offered alternative employment. Daghighi said they have been offered positions as graduate research assistants in the School of Social Work.

Frankly [it] felt like we had just kind of been abandoned and cast aside for this one action we had taken.

“We do consider that a partial win because it took a lot of pressure and outspokenness and support that we garnered around our issue that eventually led to that,” he said. “Those positions do have pay and benefits commensurate … with the teaching assistantships that we held in the fall.”

But, he said, they have asked to be allowed to serve as teaching assistants again.

Daghighi and Kennedy do not have much longer until they’ve completed their degrees, but this incident is going to leave an indelible mark on their time at UT Austin. Daghighi said while he and Kennedy did not want to center their own experiences in this situation, it has been the most hectic two-and-a-half weeks of his life.

“What it has made crystal clear for me is that freedom of speech, as it were, is not a true freedom of speech if it doesn’t include the opportunity for actively oppressed and marginalized groups and students and those in support of those students to speak for their needs,” he said.

Kennedy added that while the experience has been alienating, it has been important to share it openly.

“We continue to feel that we are adhering to our ethical mandate as social workers by going public about this situation and calling for protection for this student community on campus,” she said.

How UT has treated them as well, Daghighi said, has sent a terrible message to other students on campus.

"And it's not one that is in any way limited to what's happening at the University of Texas at Austin," he said. "It's literally all over."

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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