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Rayna Acha, one of the University of Chicago graduates whose degrees are being withheld by the university, speaks outside the University of Chicago’s Levi Hall in Hyde Park, where students and faculty gathered to speak out against the university’s decision to withhold degrees of graduating seniors. Acha said she is not sure how she’ll find work without her degree.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

UChicago decision to withhold protesters’ degrees leaves students stuck in limbo

Some faculty say the punishment of pro-Palestinian demonstrators goes against the school’s commitment to free speech. Others say the encampment was uniquely disruptive.

Five University of Chicago students are stuck in limbo as college officials withhold their degrees over their participation in demonstrations supporting Palestine.

“It’s very fluid and intense and confusing,” said Rayna Acha, an undergraduate who was supposed to graduate from UChicago on June 1. “I have honors in both of my majors but I don’t actually have the degree. I don’t know what that will look like in terms of applying for jobs and getting interviews.”

Acha was notified a week before graduation, just after she had finished finals, that her degree had been put on hold because of her involvement in a disciplinary matter. An email from a college dean said there had been complaints filed against the Gaza solidarity encampment – and that Acha may be involved.

Acha, who admits to joining the encampment, has not been told who made the complaints.

On June 6 she got another email from the university, telling her that she’s been accused of disrupting university operations “by occupying space in the main quadrangle, which resulted in the blocking of campus thoroughfares, the use of amplified sound, chanting, drumming on buckets and other items, refusing to leave the quadrangle when directed, damage to property, and the placement of unauthorized items on the quadrangle, including but not limited to tents and fencing.”

Acha said she has to pay her rent, but does not know who will hire her considering she hasn’t actually graduated.

“So [the university is] going to take this away, and then … make me spend months and months of my life waiting to get my degree … to make us an example for what they’re willing to do to people who are organizing, and organizing for Palestine specifically,” Acha said.

University officials denied multiple interview requests and refused to answer questions about the decision to temporarily deny the students their degrees.

Faculty members supporting Acha and the four other impacted students say the move is the result of a flawed disciplinary process, and that it raises questions about the university’s much-publicized commitment to free speech.

Others say the consequence is a fair one, noting it is temporary until a resolution is reached.

“Protest is okay, as long as it doesn’t disrupt basic university functions,” said Dorian Abbot, a geophysics professor at UChicago. “I had students who couldn’t make it to their class because of this encampment. And there were classes that couldn’t go on due to chanting and loudspeaker[s].”

Israel Palestinians Campus Protests

Pro-Palestinian protesters chant at University of Chicago police while being kept from the university’s quad as the student encampment is dismantled Tuesday, May 7. Some UChicago faculty believe the encampment was uniquely disruptive, and say withholding degrees from protesters is the right move.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photos

Denis Hirschfeldt, a mathematics professor and member of UChicago’s faculty senate, visited the encampment every day and said it was far less disruptive than some official university events.

“Protest without a certain amount of disruption is not protest,” he said. “So either you say, ‘We are anti-protest, we’re going to shut this down,’ or you have to tolerate some amount of disruption.”

Hirschfeldt takes issue with how the university is handling the complaints against the encampment. In a statement officials said the school’s disciplinary process is independent from university leaders. But several professors told WBEZ the faculty member handling the complaints was recently appointed by the university’s provost.

“It’s a massive conflict of interest,” Hirschfeldt said. “Because the administration … cannot be said to be a disinterested party here ... . The administration has made statements against the encampment, against those students. They sent the police to disband it.”

He said the decision to put the students’ degrees on hold is a betrayal of the university’s commitment to free speech that will fall especially hard on marginalized students. He noted that two of the students who have been called out by officials for their involvement in the encampment, including Acha, are members of UChicago’s Odyssey scholarship program for low-income and first-generation college students.

“Because it feels particularly vindictive, and particularly punitive, it is going to send a really chilling message to students about the limits of what they’re able to say, what they’re able to advocate for,” Hirschfeldt said. “Because there’s always that in the back of their minds.”

Acha, for one, said she would do it all over again.

“The people who would be in the same year as us in Gaza are not going to graduate,” she said. “Graduation is to celebrate, but it also, for me, has shown a lot about how the world needs to change.”

Acha said that message will stick with her or life, especially as she figures out what she can do next…without the degree she worked so hard for.

Lisa Kurian Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @LAPhilip.

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