U. of C. withholds degrees of 4 seniors after protest encampment

The University of Chicago was Youssef Hasweh’s dream school. It’s why the senior chose to work at its admissions office. He guided campus tours, answered phones for prospective students and spoke on admissions panels. The 22-year-old was set to graduate Saturday.

But just hours after he completed his final exams Friday, Hasweh received an email informing him that his degree would be withheld pending a school disciplinary process related to his involvement with the university’s pro-Palestinian encampment. Three other seniors also received an email from the university, according to student group UChicago United for Palestine.

“I loved this university,” Hasweh said. “But this year made my UChicago dream a nightmare.”

A U. of C. spokesman said the school could not comment on individual student disciplinary matters, but noted that the process is standard practice after a formal complaint is reviewed by the university’s Disciplinary Committee.

“The recent protests on campus brought about multiple formal complaints alleging that students violated University policies, including by engaging in disruptive conduct,” the university said. “Once a formal complaint is received and, if the Disciplinary Committee faculty lead concurs that the complaint is credible, the matter may be referred to the Standing Disciplinary Committee on Disruptive Conduct to determine if policies have been violated.”

The four students are still able to participate in graduation and other end-of-year events, and their degrees can be later conferred depending on the resolution of the disciplinary process. But if the committee finds that certain policies have been violated, their degrees could be denied, despite four years of coursework and tuition.

Undergraduate tuition for the prestigious institution exceeds $67,000, and rises to more than $93,000 after including housing, food and other miscellaneous expenses.

The university’s pro-Palestinian encampment was erected April 29 as part of a nationwide movement sweeping college campuses in protest of the Israel-Hamas war. It was cleared by university police March 7, with school officials citing mounting safety concerns and disruptive conduct. No students were arrested.

“This is not a new tactic for the university,” said Kelly Hui, 22, who also received an email. “They’ve used these tactics of intimidation to try to scare us into silence. They’re trying to jeopardize our future.”

The students said it was unclear why they were singled out from those who participated in the encampment. In an email to each senior, Associate Dean of Students Jeremy Inabinet said U. of C. had received “multiple complaints regarding the quad encampment” and that they had been “identified as an individual that may have been involved.”

“I’m still processing it. I’m just angry,” said Rayna Acha, 22. “This is just a way to continue to enacting repression and preventing people from speaking about Palestine.”

The disciplinary process includes a fact-finding stage, as well as a hearing and eventual vote by the university’s Standing Disciplinary Committee on Disruptive Conduct. It’s unclear how long the process will take.

Hasweh, who is Palestinian, called the email “a slap in the face.” He said he had participated in some of the negotiations with university officials during the encampment on the condition of amnesty.

“I have no words. I have nothing left here. I’m done,” he said. “Just let me be a university student and administer my degree that I worked hard for over the last four years and paid for.”

Acha is holding out hope that her degree will still be conferred. Despite her frustration with the administration, she can’t imagine leaving without it after four years of classes.

“Ideally we’re able to get our degrees, even though this institution is not somewhere that I am proud of being a part of,” Acha said. “We’ll be leaving here unemployed and possibly without diplomas. But I, personally, need to have a job.”

A petition started by U. of C. pro-Palestinian student groups, demanding that the seniors be granted degrees, has garnered more than 5,000 signatures from university community members.

“The solidarity that we have for Gaza cannot be suppressed or taken away from us,” Acha said.

Hasweh was also one of the 26 students arrested in November by U. of C. police during a sit-in protesting the university’s alleged ties to weapons manufacturers supplying arms to Israel. He was charged with a misdemeanor and was fired from his admissions office position. The charge was later dropped.

He has no regrets. Hasweh said he has family in the West Bank who have been killed in the war.

“This sucks. It all sucks,” Hasweh said. “I won’t get a degree, but there are people in Gaza that will never get a degree, and that’s why we’re still fighting.”

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