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UNC-Chapel Hill faculty call on administration to lift punishments for student protesters

Pro-Palestinian demonstration at UNC Chapel Hill on April 30, 2024, where students and other protesters linked arms and waved Palestinian flags.
Peyton Sickles
Pro-Palestinian demonstration at UNC Chapel Hill on April 30, 2024, where students and other protesters linked arms and waved Palestinian flags.

Several dozen faculty and staff members at UNC-Chapel Hill gathered at the Peace and Justice Plaza this afternoon to call for amnesty for students who were suspended after last week’s pro-Palestinian protests.

The group represents more than 750 faculty and staff who signed a petition that also condemns Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts and his use of police on students.

“As a Jewish faculty-member, I am horrified by the weaponization of anti-semitism to shut down peaceful protests against the genocide in Gaza,” said professor Michal Osterweil, curriculum in Global Studies, in a press release. “These protests have been very inclusive and some of the most Jewish-friendly spaces I have experienced after 27 years of being at UNC.”

The UNC-Chapel Hill Students for Justice In Palestine are calling on faculty to withhold submitting final grades until the demands are met.

It is unclear if any faculty or instructors have agreed to withhold grades.

The petition began circulating over the weekend and calls on Roberts and Provost Chris Clemens to “grant amnesty” to any student arrested and/or suspended for participating in last week’s pro-Palestinian protests.

UNC English professor Elyse Crystall, wearing blue, is pictured here speaking among a couple dozen UNC faculty and staff gathered on May 6, 2024 to demand that administrators lift punishments for students who participated in the pro-Palestinian protests on campus at the end of April 2024.
Brianna Atkinson
UNC English professor Elyse Crystall said many faculty members fear retaliation from university administration & fear they could lose their jobs for protesting. Crystall also said, however, their voices won't be silenced. "We must be loud and noisy and audacious."

Last Tuesday, 36 people were detained, including 10 UNC students, and six were arrested following a pro-Palestinian encampment at UNC’s Polk Place.

The petition was started by the UNC Faculty and Staff Justice in Palestine chapter. According to the letter, 15 students have been banned from the university for up to two years.

The letter also demands that Roberts and Clemens remove fencing around the flagpole in the center of UNC’s campus, return confiscated items to students and reopen Campus Y — a building that houses a 160-year social justice hub on campus.

A second letter circulating online had been signed by more than 1,300 people — faculty, students and community members among them — as of Tuesday morning that supports UNC-Chapel Hill administrators taking disciplinary action against protestors that "violated the law and university policy."

"We strongly support free speech. But free speech has limits, including reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions," the letter reads. "Additionally, conduct that violates the law is not protected. These rules must be followed so that the University can be a place where everyone can go about teaching, learning, and exercising their own free speech rights, without interruption, interference, or intimidation."

According to a FAQ list UNC administration released last week, Campus Y was reopened with limited hours on Monday. It also stated the university provided a three-hour window on Friday for people to pick up items they lost during the protest. It said items remaining after that time would be discarded.

The university said it put fencing around the flagpole in Polk Place to “preserve the landscape” and “deter protestors from engaging in dangerous behavior.” At last Tuesday’s encampment, protestors removed the American flag and replaced it with a Palestinian one.

The UNC Students for Justice in Palestine chapter is also demanding amnesty for students. On Sunday, they sent out a statement, asking faculty members and graduate student teaching assistants to withhold all of their students’ final grades until suspensions are lifted. If any faculty member or TA were to not report their final grades to the university, it could prevent students from graduating.

The UNC SJP chapter has also been suspended by university administration.

UNC SJP held two demonstration events over the weekend, where students marched through UNC’s campus and blocked traffic down Franklin street.

WUNC Digital Producer Mitchell Northam contributed to this story.

Brianna Atkinson is WUNC’s 2024 Fletcher Fellow and covers higher education in partnership with Open Campus.