Banned then backtracked

We, as a community, need to celebrate that the administration finally backtracked from its blatant attempt to suppress academic freedom.

“Barnard is a place that catalyzes knowledge creation, embraces investigation, and stimulates intellectual curiosity,” Barnard President Laura Rosenbury wrote in an email she sent me Wednesday evening.

And yet, everything that led up to that email has made me wonder if, in fact, this is true.

For weeks, President Rosenbury has been quietly working to shut down an event I have been planning with students and staff: a screening of the film Israelism, followed by a discussion with a stellar panel. For weeks, in turn, I have been asserting that as a faculty member, I have a right and a responsibility to cultivate and curate educational events without the interference of the administration. President Rosenbury finally conceded, in an email to me Wednesday night that read, in part, “Ultimately, the decision to screen the film is yours, and you maintain the right to do so in your capacity as a faculty member.”

We, as a community, need to celebrate that the administration finally backtracked from its blatant attempt to suppress academic freedom. The president affirmed what faculty, students and staff here have long known to be true: that it is our right to design educational, extracurricular programming without administrators’ assertion of their own content preferences.

But we need to also recognize this attempted suppression for the threat it poses to our basic rights as a faculty and students. Despite reversing course in the eleventh hour, the president has controlled how we moved forward with this screening and panel. We have been forced to go through bureaucratic nonsense and work tirelessly to accommodate her changing conditions and prohibitions. Few events will happen if they require this much work and the risk of opposing the president and provost. Rosenbury says that she wants to stimulate dialogues but blocks attempts by students to partake in academic conversations on their own terms, even when they go exactly by the book and collaborate with trusted faculty members like myself.

So what exactly happened here?

In November, Jewish students appealed to a staff member to help them curate a thoughtful, informed discussion around the screening of the recently released film Israelism—a film that itself is about the process of learning. Israelism is an award-winning documentary that chronicles the experiences of two Jewish young adults as they learn about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians; their relationship to Israel is transformed as a result.

I agreed to help these students, and we began a careful process of planning not just how to have the educational gathering we all sought, but how to navigate Barnard’s new, and constantly changing, policies regarding events. We were meticulous, because we knew that Barnard’s administration had been using the failure to comply with these procedures as a tactic for suppressing pro-Palestinian speech. We also knew that there was a national, organized effort to suppress this film based on the disingenuous claim that the film is antisemitic. In fact, all but one of the film’s producers are Jewish, the film’s protagonists are almost all Jewish, and in this case, the students and faculty planning the screening are Jewish. Our planning group of students, staff, and faculty spent a great deal of time throughout December and early January carefully identifying dream panelists: the film’s American Jewish protagonist; the film’s Palestinian-American producer; a New York University scholar of media, culture, and Palestine; and a rabbi who is a Barnard alum and has worked for over a decade for human rights. We also planned a great deal about how to make this event inclusive and engaging.

And then, in early January, I found myself traveling down a harrowing trail of ingeniously laid roadblocks and stall tactics. I had done my best to avoid this: In December, I triple-checked with the director of campus events that I had followed all the correct procedures (even if I believe that they are invalid). I kept requesting clear communication that the event was firmly approved. I could only get confirmation that the reservation was being processed. Our reservation had fallen into a bureaucratic black hole. Exasperated and with the event only three weeks away, I finally emailed Provost Linda Bell directly on January 12 and asked her to find the holdup and resolve it. Instead, on January 17, she invited me to meet that afternoon with her and President Rosenbury because “Senior Staff discussed and there are some questions and comments to share regarding the proposed event.”

In the president’s office that day was the first time anyone actually told me there was a problem—and even then, the president carefully worded her prohibition as a request. She began the meeting with her and Provost Bell by telling me, “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to ask you to pause the film.” She later added, “Obviously you can … show the film outside of campus wherever you want. That’s your individual right.” When pushed on what she meant by a “pause,” she clarified that this was not just a short “pause” but one that could last months or even years—for it would only be lifted when “we have a better sense … of how courts and the Department of Education will respond” to recent Title VI complaints of antisemitism. My arguments that this was overt censorship, a violation of academic freedom, and dangerous for Barnard’s culture fell on deaf ears.

On January 20, I emailed President Rosenbury and Provost Bell a request to confirm what they had told me verbally: that I could not screen the film, but could hold the panel. They never responded to that email. President Rosenbury also wouldn’t confirm over email that I did have permission to proceed with the event. They would neither permit nor prohibit the event in writing until nearly two weeks later.

A week later, on January 26, I met with President Rosenbury alone. She conveyed a desire to make this event more palatable—to whom I still don’t know. I offered to help with follow-up events and to think through advertising but refused to reconsider the panelists, because I was confident in the depth of their experience and knowledge and that the diversity of their expertise would be invaluable for helping the audience consider and understand their own reactions to the film. Moreover, as a faculty member, determining what this panel would look like (something I had done in close consultation with the students who desperately sought to have this discussion) is my right.

Following our January 26 meeting, President Rosenbury still failed to send me anything in writing and continued to leave my reservation in the event management system in limbo. On the evening of Monday, January 29, I got an email from Barnard’s executive vice president for strategy and Chief Administrative Officer Kelli Murray, CC’ing President Rosenbury, requesting a third chance to “talk” about the event, this time with the two of them. This time, I refused the invitation. I responded that I was moving forward with the panel without the film, and I requested that any communication be sent by email.

All of these requests for conversations, discussions, and talks are disingenuous—a performance of dialogue and collaboration as a cover for coercion. The administration is also stymieing our attempts to speak by using absurd rule changes and bureaucracy as barriers.

We should not miss the fact that these tactics are so time-consuming that they divert us from our primary work. These last few weeks, all I have wanted to do is teach and care for my students, not to mention working on my research. And yet, every spare minute has been consumed by either responding to the administration’s latest move on this event or to its harassment of our students for other actions. Just as importantly, student organizers have been pushed to set aside their coursework to ensure that students across the Barnard and Columbia community can see this film and attend the panel.

Our event on Monday is, by contrast, a kind of talking and gathering that we need. We need real spaces for learning through engagement with hard material. Students, staff, and faculty are pursuing authentic conversations, dialogue, and learning! Indeed, we imagined and pursued this event in just that spirit. Join us.

Debbie Becher is an associate professor of sociology at Barnard College. She authored this letter with contributions from Izzy Lapidus, BC ʼ24, a computing, design, and pedagogy major at Barnard College, and Makayla Gubbay, GS ʼ25, a human rights major in the School of General Studies.