Editorial: By suspending SJP, CWRU’s administration furthers a culture of distrust

Editorial: By suspending SJP, CWRU’s administration furthers a culture of distrust

On Sunday, March 3, Case Western Reserve University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) posted to their Instagram account a letter from the university administration from Feb. 26 notifying them that SJP has received an “Interim Loss of Recognition” as a student organization. The letter, sent by the Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards George O’Connell and which The Observer obtained through email, references earlier communications from the university concerning potential student conduct and Posting Policy violations by SJP. Specifically, it states that SJP “engaged in [gluing] fl[y]ers to various surfaces around campus,” such as the Spirit Wall, “in violation of the University’s posting policy and student code of conduct”; additionally, it claims that SJP failed “to respond to requests from the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards.”
This interim derecognition of SJP came as an immense surprise to the student body; not even the vice president of finance of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) was notified of the suspension. The Instagram post has since received over 9,000 likes and outside news organizations such as FOX 8 News and Cleveland Scene have even covered the event.
The Editorial Board contacted the university with a dozen questions in a request for comment on the recent events. This is the university’s statement in full: “On March 3, 2023, CWRU Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) posted a letter to its Instagram account, dated February 26, 2024, from Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Student Conduct & Community Standards to student representative of CWRU SJP in which they were informed of CWRU SJP’s Interim Loss of Recognition. This letter also included steps for CWRU SJP members to take for CWRU SJP to be considered for reinstatement of organizational recognition. Additional facts are outlined in that letter, which is attached.” The university did not comment as to the reason for requesting names of specific members involved in the alleged posting of flyers, which was one of their conditions for reinstatement.
Nevertheless, some student members disagree about the organization’s involvement in the postings. As one student responded to The Observer, “I would like to make this abundantly clear. SJP as an organization did not organize the postings of the flyers,” calling into question the university’s response.
At a USG meeting on Tuesday, March 5, Peter Whiting, the interim vice president of student affairs, stressed that “[i]t was ultimately the failure to respond in the conduct process that made us take the step to the interim suspension.” However, this statement blatantly ignores the real and legitimate concerns that students feel toward the administration—and these recent actions will only further damage the already strained relationship between students and administrators. As a fellow student organization, The Observer recognizes these worries and stands in full support of SJP’s right to freely express its beliefs.
It became abundantly clear throughout the meeting that students all across campus do not trust the administration. In a discussion regarding the university’s request for a list of SJP’s membership, Whiting hoped that students could trust USG Advisor and Director of Student Activities and Leadership Marc Hartmann to keep the list confidential and not share it publicly. One student said in response, “I don’t think I can put that trust in [Hartmann] and I don’t think the rest of the student body can either.”
The administration has slowly been creating distrust in the campus community over the past few years. “The thing is, [collaboration] is a two way street,” one student said in the meeting. “[W]e can not have that trust in the administration if certain members don’t do their part in maintaining that trust. If SJP is expected to collaborate, then I believe it is about time the administration does something to make up for what they have done in the past.”
This trust and collaboration were broken when, on Nov. 9, 2022, President Kaler sent out an email calling the passing of Resolution 31-15 by the USG “profoundly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic” and a vote for the resolution “clearly a vote against Israel and an aggression toward the Jewish members of our community.” In that one instance, Kaler implicated the entire student body in an attack on an entire nation and faith, and his words opened a chasm between students in the classroom and administrators in the boardroom.
More recently, the administration intimidated the LGBT Center for its support of SJP’s walkout in protest of the university’s stance on the conflict. In the subsequent months, the administration still has not learned.
The timing is also important here. In many instances of CWRU claiming violations of university policies, and now with SJP’s suspension, students were requested to meet with administration officials during exam weeks, otherwise incredibly stressful times for students. As a result, this only adds fuel to students’ distrust of Kaler and the rest of the administration.
By going after SJP in such an aggressive manner and at such a sensitive time for students, it is clear that SJP is being held to a higher standard than any other student organization. This in turn makes us as students question the ethics behind this decision and the university’s commitment to having the interests of its students in their heart. Moreover, this distrust has become so insidious and enmeshed in campus culture that individuals in SJP claim that “the administration has been bringing in lawyers to talk to SJP members,” and SJP has also had to bring on a team of lawyers as noted in the USG meeting.
In response to the growing concern surrounding this culture of distrust, Whiting said, “This is not what I am here to talk about today.” It should be no surprise then that after the university failed on multiple occasions to approach student frustrations in a respectful manner no member of SJP would trust the administration with such private information as student names.
The Observer also reached out to SJP personally for comments. Adeline Barry Davee Distinguished Professor of History and SJP faculty advisor Ted Steinberg said that “[t]he administration’s approach to this matter seems harsh and overly legalistic.” Most telling, however, is that the administration’s “handling of [SJP] is exhibiting a failure of empathy.” Continuing, he said, “Recently, the UN International Court of Justice found that there is plausible evidence that Israel has committed genocide … The CWRU administration wants to prioritize university property over people, punishing students who are upset and crying out to stop the bloodshed. I’m sure CWRU can think of a more humane way to treat courageous, politically active students than to take an iron-fisted approach as if it were operating a prosecutor’s office.”
The student members recounted that after a “New Violation” email from Feb. 19, their legal team “took the reins and communicated with the administration themselves” just one week before they officially lost recognition. At this point, the students did not have control over communications with the university.
The student members were also shocked when they received news of the group’s loss of recognition. As one student responded, “The impact of the news was profound and unexpected because the suspension was abrupt, forcing us to search for clarity between ourselves. After the initial surprise, we were determined to maneuver through the suspension notice”; however, “[a]ny reconciliation seemed impossible at this point” because the group would have to share names of student members to be considered for reinstatement.
No student should ever have to feel this kind of fear and intimidation from the university that is supposed to support them. Universities are supposed to encourage students to think critically about world issues and provide a forum where they can debate and discuss solutions. What CWRU did in its decision to temporarily suspend SJP is delegitimize the lived experiences of countless CWRU students. When these actions occur multiple times, it is hard for many CWRU students to feel like they can trust their administrators. This is where we are at right now, and until CWRU changes, this distrust will only continue to grow.
This issue was never about flyers or glue or what exactly constitutes damage to university property; the issue is the growing culture of distrust that the administration, through its conscious actions, has been creating for years. “These confrontations serve as poignant reminders of the challenges faced by student organizations advocating for justice and equality on campuses, even on a national level,” the students said. “The unwarranted characterization of our efforts to reclaim peace and justice as disruptive are not only misrepresentations of our intentions but it also undermines our fundamental right to free expression. Instead of fostering an environment conducive to open dialogue and debate, such labeling stifles dissent and perpetuates a culture of fear and intimidation.” Though, despite these challenges, SJP is determined to keep going: “[W]e are now more than ever committed to challenging these injustices and fighting for a more inclusive and equitable environment for all students.”

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