Lily Kepner

” ‘Culture of fear’ and intolerance: The war of vengeance in #Gaza has another live front right here on #American campuses where #academic_freedom of expression is at stake.”

Texas Tech University suspended Jairo Fúnez-Flores, an assistant professor in the College of Education, with pay earlier this month for social media posts that school leaders called “hateful, antisemitic and unacceptable.”

Rights and academic freedom groups, such as the American Association of University Professors and Pen America, say the assistant professor’s suspension highlights concerns about due process and academic freedom, stating that there is a larger pattern nationally of suppressing pro-Palestinian voices amid the Middle East war between Israel and Hamas.

Fúnez-Flores, who works in curriculum studies and researches decolonial theory, said in an interview with the American-Statesman that he has been posting about colonial struggles since 2021, including the war in Gaza. After Oct. 7 — when Hamas, a militant Palestinian government and military group that governs the Gaza Strip, attacked the Jewish state, prompting Israel to declare war on the territory, where more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, according to media reports — he has continued to post about the conflict and decolonialization, sometimes using profanity.

But he said no action against him was taken until Texas Scorecard, a conservative news outlet that reports “on the advancement of self-governance,” on Feb. 22 published an article documenting the professor’s posts about the war in Gaza. The outlet claimed that Fúnez-Flores’ posts, which support Palestinian people and oppose Israel, were antisemitic and stated in a subheading that “the university has an opportunity for reform.”

Texas Tech put Fúnez-Flores on paid leave March 4 as its Office of Equal Opportunity investigates “whether any of the antisemitic sentiments expressed by Professor Fúnez-Flores’ social media comments have found their way into the classroom or the work environment and are deemed to be discriminatory harassment,” said a statement on behalf of President Lawrence Schovanec and Texas Tech System Chancellor Tedd Mitchell.

The statement cited the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ warning to institutions last May that they have an obligation amid a rise in antisemitism to take immediate action to protect Jewish students against harassment. It also said the social media posts were against the university’s values.

However, the university stating that the posts are antisemitic before conducting an investigation “is perhaps more concerning than the actual suspension,” Fúnez-Flores said.

“When we critique nation-states, it is not a critique of the ethnic or religious groups that live within the national boundaries,” he said. “This is a dangerous conflation.”

Timeline, what happened?

Fúnez-Flores said he has received numerous hate emails, a voice mail and a letter at his university office as well as death threats because of his posts after Oct. 7. He said university leaders knew of this and took no action.

The Statesman verified that university officials from Technology Support, the Alumni Association and the College of Education were forwarded or were copied on emails from private individuals critiquing Fúnez-Flores’ character, speech or ability to teach because of his posts on X. The university and the dean of the College of Education did not respond to Statesman questions about whether they had seen these messages.

Fúnez-Flores said his dean informed him about the Scorecard article when it was published and later that day asked him to delete a post on X that he had written about the article. Fúnez-Flores did not delete the post, in which he discussed the “hit piece,” saying it was a violation of his freedom of expression. He said he had no further communication with administrators until he was suspended.

“No one asked me after Feb. 23 to clarify my tweets, to conceptualize my tweets, to speak about them in any way, shape or form,” he said. “I was just suspended.”

The university did not respond to questions about which posts specifically prompted the school’s investigation or whether students had complained.

“We take the First Amendment’s application to public universities seriously; however, we are also committed to providing a safe learning and working environment that is free from harassment, including antisemitic harassment, and will not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into harassment and interferes with or limits the ability of an individual to participate in the educational activities of Texas Tech University,” the president’s and chancellor’s statement said.

For Fúnez-Flores, however, “The complicity of our institutions is clearly revealed when one is on the receiving end of institutional violence for speaking out against genocide,” he posted on X on Feb. 23. “Power veers its ugly head when people collectively resist. So do whatever you can to refuse the silence that fear seeks to impose.”

Activism since the suspension

Students from Texas Tech’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine held a protest March 7 for Fúnez-Flores’ reinstatement. More than 2,000 people have signed an open letter supporting the assistant professor, and a GoFundMeorganized for the professor had received more than $25,000 as of Monday afternoon.

The AAUP, consulted by Fúnez-Flores, opposed his suspension in a letter to Schovanec, the university’s president, writing that since 1940 it has been against punishing academics for free expressions as citizens.

“We are deeply concerned that the administration’s actions against Professor Fúnez-Flores has occurred in the context of escalated political and legislative demands that institutions of higher education restrict what can be expressed on and off campus,” Anita Levy, AAUP’s associate secretary, wrote in the letter.

Levy added that the AAUP insists Fúnez-Flores’ punishment, even with pay, is considered a “major sanction” and should be taken only after demonstrating cause in a faculty hearing.

Nationally, professors have been suspended after being critiqued for pro-Palestinian sentiments in how they discuss the war, and some pro-Palestinian groups have been suspended from universities.

At the University of Texas, two teaching assistants were removed from their positions in November after sending a message in support of Palestinian students and Palestine to their class, and four students who entered a dean’s office to advocate for the reinstatement of the teaching assistants were investigated and punished up to deferred suspension for their protest.

Fúnez-Flores said he believes he is the first professor in Texas to be suspended for his pro-Palestinian statements.

“Even the suspension establishes a dangerous precedent, in the sense that it violates due process, academic freedom and also free speech,” he said. “It is in a sense to create a culture of fear.”

Fúnez-Flores said administrators told him the investigation would last two to four weeks. He said he believes it is important to speak out to contextualize the war in Gaza, and that there is a pattern of suppressing voices who seek to do that.

“When we become employees of academics, we don’t necessarily leave our First Amendment rights once we get a job at the university. We maintain our rights, as long as we’re not infringing upon the rights within the campus,” he said. “There’s an exception, a clear exception, when it deals with Palestine.”

This article was first published by Austin American-Statesman