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Hobart and William Smith Colleges professor suspended for comments on Israel-Hamas war

Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
Adobe Stock
Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

A local college professor has been suspended after publishing a controversial article about the Israel-Hamas war in a blog on a left-wing book publisher’s site.

Jodi Dean, who has been a professor of politics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva for about 30 years, published an article on Verso Books’ website called ‘Palestine speaks for everyone’ earlier this month.

In it, Dean describes parts of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israelis as "exhilarating," and part of a Palestinian revolution against an oppressor.

“Who could not feel energized seeing oppressed people bulldozing the fences enclosing them, taking to the skies in escape, and flying freely through the air?” Dean wrote. “The shattering of the collective sense of the possible made it seem as if anyone could be free, as if imperialism, occupation, and oppression can and will be overthrown.”

Mark Gearan, president of the colleges, published a statement on April 13 condemning Dean’s comments.

“I find her comments repugnant, condemn them unequivocally, and want to make clear that these are her personal views and not those of our institution,” Gearan wrote in his letter to the colleges’ community. “I deeply regret that as a result of Professor Dean’s comments, there now may be students on our campus who feel threatened in or outside of the classroom.”

Gearan added that Dean has been suspended from classroom duties while an investigation is carried out.

WXXI News reached out to Dean for comment and has not received a response as of publication. In a tweet on April 13, Dean said “McCarthyism is real. I’ve been relieved of teaching responsibilities. Don’t stop talking about Palestine.”

Why is there an investigation?

The investigation is to determine whether Dean violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That prohibits discrimination based on national origin, said Catherine Williams, vice president for marketing and communications at the colleges.

The Title VI investigation will be carried out by Provost and Dean of Faculty Sarah Kirk, Gearan said in his letter.

On Monday, Kirk sent a note to staff and students.

“I want to assure you that Academic Freedom is one of our core values, as is the obligation to create an environment where all of our students can thrive,” Kirk said. “We are committed to a fair and expeditious process to vet all of these issues.”

Certain comments in the article prompted the investigation, Williams said.

“It's the statements about feeling exhilarated and energized by the paragliders landing in Israel on Oct. 7, describing them as ‘seemingly impossible acts of bravery and defiance,’ and questioning ‘who could not feel energized?’” she said. “(Dean) also gave a lecture on campus on March 28 that mimics that essay.”

While suspended with pay from teaching, Dean is permitted to conduct research and continue publishing, Williams said. Other professors are teaching her classes for the remainder of the semester, which lasts another three weeks.

The mood on campus is mixed, Williams said.

“There is definitely this idea that, in taking this action, that we are somehow not upholding the rights of all of our community members to express their views,” she said.

“But we are also in a position where we have this conflicting direction from the Department of Education, that tells us that in order to comply, we need to take action when we know or should know of a hostile environment based on national origin,” she added. “In our preliminary estimation, this could potentially fall within that.”

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What does the law say?

The U.S. Department of Education is responsible for enforcing Title VI "as it applies to programs or activities that receive financial assistance,” which would include colleges like Hobart and William Smith.

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights states that “Title VI prohibits a recipient from intimidating, threatening, coercing, or retaliating against any person because they made a complaint; testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing; or opposed an unlawful educational practice or policy.”

The office issued a "Dear Colleague" letter in November emphasizing that obligation to educational institutions across the country.

“All students, including students who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian, as well as students who come from, or are perceived to come from, all regions of the world, are entitled to a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin,” the letter reads.

Copyright 2024 WXXI News. To see more, visit WXXI News.

Noelle E. C. Evans is a general assignment reporter/producer for WXXI News with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.