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Staff face discipline for Tulane encampment; Xavier cancels commencement speaker

A pro-Palestinian march makes its way along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans on November 9, 2023.
Aubri Juhasz
A pro-Palestinian march makes its way along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans on November 9, 2023.

Israel's war in Gaza is still front and center on New Orleans' college campuses, where students continue to advocate for a ceasefire even as the semester ends.


BOB PAVLOVICH, HOST: As the semester winds down, colleges and universities — including in New Orleans — are still dealing with the fallout from pro-Palestinian encampments, counter-protests and in some cases the decision to bring police onto campus. 

To walk us through where things stand for local schools, I’m joined now by WWNO/WRKF education reporter Aubri Juhasz. Bring us up to speed on the protests we’ve seen this semester.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: Student-led protests actually started in the fall shortly after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and the Israeli military launched its war in Gaza.

And Tulane University got some attention early on, when a pro-Palestinian rally near campus that month briefly turned violent. Someone in the bed of a truck held a lighter up to an Israeli flag. A counter-protester tried to pull it away and a fight erupted.

Students I’ve spoken to say that kind of set the tone for the rest of the year… This sense that students are deeply divided and don’t really know how to talk to one another about what’s happening in the Middle East and how it’s impacting them here.

PAVLOVICH: And it isn’t just Tulane that’s dealing with conflict over Israel’s war in Gaza, right?

JUHASZ: Correct. Students have held pro-Palestinian rallies at other schools, including the University of New Orleans.

And this week, students at Xavier University successfully petitioned to have the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield removed as their commencement speaker. As the U.S. representative she vetoed several ceasefire resolutions earlier this year.

Xavier’s president said he didn’t want there to be any disruptions during Saturday’s graduation and that he looked forward to having Thomas-Greenfield visit another time.

PAVLOVICH: Like a lot of other schools, Tulane really saw things come to a head last week when students and other community members set up a pro-Palestinian encampment. What were they trying to accomplish?

JUHASZ: Student groups at Tulane and nearby Loyola University have been organizing pro-Palestinian events all year. And last week, like students at a lot of other schools, they decided to build an encampment. They pitched tents on Tulane’s campus — and later constructed a kind of a wall around it with cardboard and wood pallets — and said they wouldn’t leave until their demands were met or they were arrested.

The groups asked for a number of things, including a ceasefire in Gaza and that both Tulane and Loyola divest from Israeli corporations and those that supply arms, fuel or technology to Israel.

Unlike some other schools where administrators said they would work with protestors toward meeting some of their demands, Tulane didn’t and called in state police to clear the encampment within 48 hours.

PAVLOVICH: What did Tulane officials say about the situation and their response?

JUHASZ: Well, officials say they were focused on ensuring everyone’s safety and that the encampment was disrupting the end of the semester.

But I’ve heard from a number of people who push back on that. They argue the encampment wasn’t really in the way of things and that the decision to bring in armed state police was itself dangerous, since the protesters weren’t violent.

That said, the lawn they pitched tents on is Tulane’s. They were there illegally and were told repeatedly to leave. And a number of Jewish student groups sent a letter to officials telling them the encampment made them feel unsafe and that they wanted it cleared immediately.

Gov. Jeff Landry praised the schools’ swift action. And while they’ve gotten criticism for bringing in the police, the bigger thing people have objected to is Tulane’s decision to discipline students and staff.

Loyola students were also involved and arrested at the encampment, and a spokesperson for the school told me they haven’t been suspended. And that there aren’t any staff members facing discipline.

Tulane suspended seven students who were arrested. And I learned this week that several staff members were also placed on leave.

Several Tulane employees placed on leave after pro-Palestinian encampment

A spokesperson for Tulane told me the school does not comment on individual personnel issues and wouldn’t explain the circumstances. But I did speak with one of the people placed on leave, Olivia Gowen.

She says she was told it was because she participated in the encampment. Which she says isn’t true and that she was there to check in on her students. She wanted clarity on what she could and couldn’t do, so she emailed someone higher up.

OLIVIA GOWEN: And when I asked for guidance, I wasn’t given any and instead I was suspended.

JUHASZ: Hundreds of people have signed letters calling on Tulane officials to drop all actions against students and staff. And almost 40 faculty members released a video this week with the same request.

Gowen’s suspension was lifted this morning. But she says she’s still being investigated for her conduct.

PAVLOVICH: Do you have a sense how Tulane’s community is feeling about all of this?

JUHASZ: Not good. It’s not a great way to end the year — though graduation is still happening, which isn’t true of all schools where encampments were set up.

Gowen, who works in Tulane’s center for intercultural life, told me the whole experience has really shaken her trust in the school’s administration. And she thinks they need to do more to foster good faith dialogue around what’s happening in the Middle East and the university’s response.

GOWEN: I truly do hope that they don't abdicate the role of education. They don't throw their hands up and say it's complicated. You know, as educators, you face a complicated problem and you say, ‘Oh, let's get to the bottom of it.’

JUHASZ: All of this raises larger questions about how colleges and universities react to complex geopolitical issues through their words and actions. And make sure everyone on campus feels safe and heard.

PAVLOVICH: Aubri Juhasz, WWNO/WRKF education reporter. Thank you for your reporting.

JUHASZ: You’re welcome.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.