Friday, May 12, 2006

Letter from Professor Hugh Thomas to UM Faculty Concerning Disciplinary Action Against the Students

Dear Colleagues,

Many of you will have seen yesterday’s advertisement in the Miami Herald condemning a planned protest of today’s graduation. Although I am a strong supporter of unionization efforts and of the students who have supported it, I was never in favor of the protest, partly for some of the reasons the ad stated. I was relieved to learn yesterday that the protest had been cancelled at the request of the students whom it was intended to support. Nevertheless, this extremely expensive advertisement seems to me to form part of a troubling effort on the part of the administration to intimidate student attempts to support the unionization effort.

Since the last week of April, approximately 20 students received Official Notices to appear before Dean Singleton. The notices indicated that they were being investigated for “major violations” (a technical term) which could possibly lead to suspension or expulsion. When union representatives asked for amnesty for the students as part of the negotiated settlement on May 1, they were told that was not on the table. When the students appeared before Dean Singleton, each of them represented by a lawyer working pro bono, they were advised that the charges related to violations of university rules on disorderly conduct and failure to comply with the university’s requests or orders. They were also asked to identify pictures of themselves or others in pictures of demonstrations. On the advice of their attorneys they said nothing. A few days ago, the attorneys representing the students asked for a meeting with President Shalala. Their request was rebuffed and they were referred to a private law firm hired by the university.

Many of the students involved are members of STAND, the same group that President Shalala praised in a letter for telling “outside agitators” they were not welcome on campus. This letter came out around the same time the administration banned STAND from holding events on campus. At the last faculty senate meeting, in reference to the charges against the students, President Shalala stated that they were not about free speech. I wonder. Peaceful protests, such as the one called today in support of the students, are an expression of free speech, whatever one may think of the causes they support. A peaceful protest counts as free speech evenif one doubts the propriety of holding it during a festive celebration such as graduation. I have no doubt that the students opposing the protest in yesterday’s Herald Advertisement were freely expressing their own understandable views. I doubt, however, that they organized and paid for the ad; the Miami Herald apparently charges $11,466 for such an ad for not-for-profit institutions. Although I opposed demonstrating on the day of graduation in the first place, I can’t avoid the suspicion that the administration was employing considerable resources to try to bully those who disagree with it by a very public condemnation of the protest that did not mention at all what the protest was about. At the graduate convocation, yesterday, President Shalala urged students to act on their convictions. One of my faculty colleagues who was there commented that “She didn’t add: And if I disagree with you, I’ll threaten you with suspension or expulsion.”

The processes against the students remain in progress. Since at this point the charges remain quite nebulous, it is hard to respond to them, and of course the administration will not discuss ongoing investigations, which in the abstract is a reasonable enough stance. What some of us fear, however, is that the administration is waiting until everyone goes away for the summer in order to lower the hammer at a time when people can hardly react. Suspending or expelling activist students would certainly have a chilling effect on student activism and free speech in the future. At this point, I would simply like to ask all of you on the faculty to keep an eye on this issue and to make sure that the administration treats our students fairly. Hopefully, it will do so, but as a faculty we have a responsibility not just to hope, but make sure.

Hugh Thomas
Department of History

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