The University of Rochester has been banning community members from campus since November for on-campus protests, but this weekend marked the first ban of a current UR student.

On Friday, Laith Awad, who has in many ways acting as a leader of the ongoing Gaza solidarity encampment, received a letter from Assistant Dean of Students Kyle Orton stating that “due to your continued and unregistered protest and disregard of reasonable requests from University Administration, you and other participants of the group will be receiving a letter from me banning you from campus, except for academic and living purposes.”

By Saturday, Awad and four other students involved in the organizing had received interim bans from campus. According to the Code of Conduct, an interim ban is meant to be a temporary measure “until the formal conduct process is completed” in cases in which a student’s presence on campus poses a “perceived or immediate threat.”

The letter sent to Awad goes on to explain that “the University retains the right to suspend, ban, or otherwise constrain or restrict students, groups, and organizations, on an interim basis until the formal conduct process is completed, if they pose a perceived or actual threat to themselves, others, or to the orderly process of the University community.” (The formatting is preserved from the letter.)

All five students were served identical ban letters by Orton on Saturday. The reasons were as follows:

This action stems from reports alleging:

  •   Sound amplification was used, disrupting your fellow students and the Rochester Community during an unapproved demonstration on campus property.
  •   You were asked to vacate the Wilson Quad by noon on April 24th, 2024 and failed to comply with this reasonable request. This disrupted the setup and work of many University staff and vendors setting up for Dandelion Day.
  •   You were informed not to have flags with poles and they remain at the location you are occupying on Eastman Quad.
  •   Organized an unregistered protest/rally on April 26, 2024 that brought a large crowd to campus.

The specific terms of the ban can be seen below. The letter also states that students who do not comply with the ban will not be able to continue their degree or attend commencement.

University of Rochester Gaza solidarity encampment ban letter by Justin O’Connor on Scribd

Between the initial letter and the start of his official ban, Awad spoke to a crowd on Eastman Quad to address the administration’s April 25 statement on academic divestment, the state of the encampment, and his ban, among other things.

In his speech, Awad criticized the University for hypocrisy.

“The administration speaks about ‘governance,’ about decisions not being made in a ‘top-down manner’ but can this truly be the case when a student is banned without a fair hearing? Without a transparent due process? Is this the University’s definition of ‘governance?’ To make unilateral decisions that deeply impact a student’s life and academic future?” he asked.

Notably, the office that served the current bans, the Office of the Dean of Students, is also the only office empowered to process appeals of those bans..

The second student to receive a ban was sophomore Sarah Aljitawi. In an interview Wednesday  (before her ban was served) about community member bans, Aljitawi said the encampment’s work on campus is not intended to threaten anyone.

“It’s not like we’re doing this to purposefully bug these specific administrators or to get them fired or have them face a lot of pressure from outside sources,” she said.

“We understand [the pressure on administrators] but at the end of the day, we just believe that, as students at this campus, we should be your top priority, and you’re not really hearing us or listening to us.”

The next two bans were served to graduate student Halima Aweis and senior Andrés Arocho González. The final ban was directed at senior Sybilla Moore, former vice president of the Students’ Association, UR’s student government.

Moore, who has been acting in an advisory role to the protest, finds the whole situation heinous, but also somewhat ironic.

“I think less than a week ago, I got an email from Anne-Marie Algier, the interim dean of students, who I’ve worked with since before last year, basically giving me a community leader award,” she said during a phone interview Sunday night. “And then a week later, for trying to act as, in some ways, a community liaison or community leader, I’m now banned.”

She later continued: “I think the way they went about it is so skeevy and I think it points honestly also to some bigger issues in the Student Code of Conduct that had probably existed for a long time.”

Moore said she is not entirely sure why she, specifically, or any of the final four banned students, were chosen, compared to other protesters. “They’re all sweeping statements. None of them are person-specific, as far as I can read.”

Moore also spoke on how the bans are impacting her academics: “I think I’m worried about my finals. But more than that, I think it’s just the worry of graduation.”

She continued: “With the threat of the suspension looming over, it’s hard. I’m both trying to rush against the clock because if I get all my assignments in, they can’t really do as much [to me]. But also, you’re trying to give as much as you can to focus on Gaza, which makes it hard to do your work.”

Moore also said the University should have expected disruptive behavior when they admitted passionate and talented students. “[If you] want people that are going to push the boundaries, expect them to push the boundaries everywhere, not just STEM fields.”

The University has worked to attract such students for years. In an X post in 2018, the then-Dean of Admissions Jon Burdick said:

Any student who participates in a meaningful, peaceful protest—especially those individuals who lead such efforts for change—will definitely not face any negative consequences during their application review process at the University of Rochester. We look favorably upon applicants who question everything in the pursuit of making the world ever better. This is baked into our historic DNA and our motto, Meliora.

More recently, Admissions has been asking prospective students to share how they would invoke change as a Rochester student. For the ’23-’24 admissions cycle, one essay prompt read as follows:

Susan B. Anthony, champion of abolition and women’s rights, once said “Organize, agitate, educate must be our war cry.” As you look to join our community of doers and disruptors, in what ways do you envision using both the curricular flexibility and co-curricular opportunities to invoke change for marginalized groups? How has your unique lived experience shaped you and prepared you to be a changemaker here?

One student at the encampment, Elena Perez ‘25, responded to a similar prompt in their Rochester application with a story of their own protest experience. Perez, who wrote about their work in organizing a climate walk-out at their high school, said the ’23-‘24 essay prompt made them think that involvement in protest “is something that [UR]wants from its students, whether it’s for optics or for other reasons.”

“It just shows that they love the attention when it’s convenient,” Perez further speculated. “It’s really nice to be able to say that your institution is a bastion of free speech if then you don’t have to do anything about it.”

Moving forward, the five students hope to appeal the bans. There is currently an open letter circling the campus community calling President Sarah Mangelsdorf, Provost David Figlio, and the entire UR administration to “lift the Interim Bans on all students who have been served thus far, to revoke the use of such bans, and to intervene in the Dean of Students’ office in order to find a more just way forward.” The letter has 545 signatures at the time of this article’s publication.

A smaller group of students are also looking to challenge the bans legally.

“I think based on what I’ve been reading on the Standards of Student Conduct, a lot of it is very intentionally loose to sort of give them grounds to apply them as they see fit,” said Aaron Weiner ‘24 (e5). “So, in the language of the code of conduct, the way that its phrased I believe that they do have the ability to issue interim bans. I do not believe that the specific circumstances of this ban are reasonable.”

Weiner believes that the four reasons for the ban are especially vague.

“Nothing is severe or extreme enough to do an immediate ban. It seems unnecessary to have it go into effect immediately,” he said. Wiener found in the Student Code of Conduct the language that interim bans are tools intended for immediate threats, not to be used against offenses like the use of flagpoles or loudspeakers.

In the meantime, banned students are trying to finish out the year while preparing younger students for the future of the movement after they have graduated.

“Three of the banned [students] currently are seniors, and I think that I find that [fact] really despicable too, just because the role of the upperclassmen should be to model and teach the next generation,” Sybilla Moore said. “And so if you’re going to punish people for doing that, how do you expect that [to go]?”

Editor’s Note: Read our Israel-Palestine reporting disclosures here.

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