Two UT teaching assistants lose their positions after message about Palestine

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Two University of Texas teaching assistants in the Department of Social Work were relieved after they sent an email to students through the UT message board system about the war between Israel and Palestine. 

The TAs said the message was intended to provide mental health resources to Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students. In a Nov. 22 letter to the TAs, Allan Cole, the Dean Steve Hicks School of Social Work at UT, said the “material was unrelated to the course and inappropriate given the setting,” read the letter. “This is unacceptable,” it continued. 

One of the teaching assistants, Callie Kennedy, said she was approached by a student who asked if the class discuss the mental health needs of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students. She met with another TA, Parham Daghighi, and wrote the message with the approval of their supervising professor, she said.  

“We were responding to a gap and willful neglect on the part of our university to meet the student’s needs and fulfilling my duty as a teaching assistant to respond to the needs of my students and support them,” Kennedy told KXAN. “[This] was also something that I needed to do as a social work student in order to abide by the National Association of Social Workers code of ethics,” she continued. 

Msg-to-WM-Students-2Download

Kennedy and Daghighi sent the message to students in the “Women & Madness” course, a class designed to explore the role of gender in the diagnosis of mental health issues. 

About a week after the message was sent to the class, Cole sent Kennedy and Daghighi the dismissal letter. Kennedy said both TAs were not given the opportunity to provide their perspectives before receiving the letter.

“I’m feeling shocked and distressed,” Kennedy said. “We’re seeing growing incidents of harassment, retaliation, doxing, firing of students and faculty across institutions of higher education across the country,” she added. “I’m really feeling disheartened by the fact that when it comes to Palestine, it seems like free speech doesn’t apply. And that’s an injustice,” Kennedy continued. 

(Photo Courtesy Fossil Free Media)

In a statement to KXAN, a UT spokesperson said that it supported the Dean’s decision to dismiss both TAs from their positions and that they “unprofessionally misused the official University classroom communication platform to send a personal political message to the students in a course,” the statement read. 

“The University supports our deans, administration, and faculty’s ability to ensure classroom communications meet our standards of professionalism and relate to the course at hand. Last week, leadership in the School of Social Work appropriately managed conduct by two teaching assistants who, while acting in their role as employees, unprofessionally misused the official University classroom communication platform to send a personal political message to the students in a course. This is inconsistent with the recent statements made by the teaching assistants, who now suggest their message was merely an attempt to share mental health resources and that the content of the message was related to the course.”

University of Texas at Austin spokesperson

After the dismissal, the two teaching assistants started a campaign to demand a public apology from the university, get their positions back and increase protections for Arab, Muslim and Palestinian students on campus. 

On Friday afternoon, a UT spokesperson said that both teaching assistants were both being offered employment next semester but not as teaching assistants. 

Kennedy confirmed with KXAN that Cole emailed her with a “vague” promise of employment next semester. She said since there is not a reinstatement offer, it still feels like punishment. 

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