Dina Salem & Juliette Jabra
News Editor & Editor-in-Chief
A large student protest took place on the morning of Nov. 21, after 13 graduate students received Dean’s Warnings for setting up a tent at College Hall.
The tent was placed on Nov. 13, as part of a larger movement headed by “Boldly G-AUB” to reinstate Graduate Assistant (GA) stipends, which were revoked in May by the Office of the Provost. Graduate students – and some undergraduate students – organized shifts to ensure continuous presence on the site.
Graduate students received an email from Dean of Student Affairs, Talal Nizameddin, on Nov. 20 urging them to remove the tent or face “serious disciplinary action.” Shortly after, what was initially designated as an occupation of space, the tent was surrounded by dozens of students calling for fair working conditions and the payment of labor.
The first wave of warnings was sent out to six graduates on the same day. As of the following morning, the number of graduate students who received warnings had risen to 13; 10 of whom were GAs. The warnings given to the GAs meant that they had effectively lost their scholarships.
“I am currently in the process of assessing whether I can afford to continue the semester at AUB, let alone wait to see if the administration may reverse this unjust decision,” said one of the students who requested to remain anonymous for fear of further incrimination.
The premise behind the warnings is that the tent was in violation of AUB Code of Conduct and policy, in that it was not approved by the Dean of Student Affairs.
“It’s pretty repressive to have a rule that says: all protests must be approved. Because of course they [the administration] are not going to approve of a protest against the administration,” said another one of the students who received a Dean’s Warning, who also wished to remain anonymous.
The student also noted the presence of other tents on campus historically, which did not receive the same reaction. “The administration has never reacted to a tent as we’ve seen in this way before. As far as we know, they’ve never given out mass sanctions of this scale,” the student told Outlook.
Jack Davies, a graduate student from the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES), who also received a Dean’s Warning said, “Three students who received warnings were not even on campus at the tent removal deadline, but they still received Dean’s Warnings for failing to remove the tent … making it absurd that they can be punished for failing to remove the tent as was stated in the text of the warning that we received.”
Students were quick to mobilize as invitations to join in the protest were sent out the night before, on Nov. 20. That same evening, a shocking video sparked outrage, showing the Chief of Protection Office, Saadallah Shalak, and AUB security, forcefully removing the tent as students resisted to keep it in place.
Meanwhile, campus gates were locked, and students were not allowed to enter until morning, except for dorm residents. The video went viral, following an increase in invitations to the protest.
“They waited till everyone left…We were actually expecting them to show up and try to remove the tent. So we planned to contact everyone to gather if they try anything. The surprise was the closed gates,” said May Makki, an undergraduate student who was camping in the tent on the night the video was taken.
More than 300 students gathered at the entrance of College Hall, chanting “AUB, shame shame shame on you” and “Labor should be paid.”
The crowd later marched to West Hall, which houses the Office of Student Affairs, where Flag Day celebrations were set to take place with Nizameddin.
In an attempt to reconcile, Vice President of the USFC, Myra Zeineddine, called for the protest to dissolve to allow the Flag Day ceremony to proceed. She urged protesters to let the USFC solve matters diplomatically with the administration.
In an absurd turn of events, flags were distributed to protesters, who sang the national anthem as Nizameddin raised the Lebanese flag.
This did not silence the clamour of the demonstrators, who marched back to College Hall, where they later disbanded.
The protest received vast media coverage, with articles written by The Daily Star, Annahar, among others. Various departments, student clubs, and societies released public statements of support, including elected graduate students from within the USFC and SRC and Faculty United. AUB alumni have also expressed their solidarity with the graduate students through social media posts.
Boldly G-AUB’s movement stretches back to September. The group gathered more than 1,300 signatures on their online petition, and organized a handful of peaceful and mock protests throughout the Fall 2017 semester.
“Losing a GA basically means that we cannot continue our education because we cannot afford to pay for our tuition. For some of us, it threatens our job prospects after … It throws our immediate living situation into question and further complicates our financial situation,” said one of the students who received warnings, and requested to remain anonymous.
When contacted by Outlook, President Fadlo Khuri provided a statement saying, “Our administration is following this issue closely and will do everything within our power to act in the best way for our students and wider community.
The amendments to the GA policy are being made to deploy the budget to support graduate assistantships in the most efficient way possible, while giving more opportunities to GAs to receive more financial assistances than under the stipends. The warnings are subject to appeal and it would not be appropriate to comment before all recourse has been exhausted.”
Nizameddin was contacted by Outlook but has yet to comment. He did, however, send an email to the AUB community at large following the removal of the tent.
“The students were given a final deadline yesterday to dismantle the illegally placed tent and to cooperate with the University but the deadline passed, and the students continued to refuse to cooperate. They [Graduate Students] were alerted that continued refusal would result in the issuance of a dean’s warning, and that consequences of receiving such a warning included loss of Graduate Assistantships. They again refused,” Nizameddin wrote.
Countering Nizameddin’s stance, Davies said, “The tent going up in the first place was a culmination of months of organisation, negotiations, and actions. It was not a random or irrational or sudden thing, as is being implied.
Contrary to the Dean of Student Affairs’ email yesterday, throughout the week the tent remained open, no one from the administration approached us in person or communicated a formal or informal warning about the tent. The emails we received from the Associate Provost and the Dean of Student Affairs, firstly cutting us out of the negotiations and then threatening us with academic penalties, came very suddenly on Monday. I can only assume that the sudden change is related to the President’s return from New York.”