In the wake of pro-Palestinian protests last week at the University of Utah that ended when police broke up an illegal encampment, the university community is seeking ways to move forward.

There are differing views how best to do that.

Hollis Robbins, dean of the university’s College of Humanities, and Chris Low, director of the University of Utah’s Middle East Center, say productive scholarly conversations hinge on building more capacity in Middle East studies and striving for “smart speech.”

While many people only recently have paid attention to the ongoing war in Gaza after recent protests and encampments on college campuses across the country, Robbins and Low have been in daily contact since Oct. 7, when Hamas launched an attack on Israel from Gaza.

At least 1,000 people were killed and numerous hostages were taken. The Israel Defense Forces responded with an extensive aerial bombardment of Gaza starting Oct. 27, followed by a ground invasion, killing thousands in the months since.

“I think one of the things that often concerns us is that sometimes when students have very strong feelings, strong identities, strong activist feelings, that’s not always matched with training in the classroom. So we really want to bring our students in who have those impulses, and give them exposure to world-class scholars in Middle Eastern studies,” said Low.

“So from Oct. 7 onward, we were really sort of focused on what can we do to sort of make sure that we’re putting expertise, faculty expertise, front and center, rather than identities and feelings? We really wanted to be grounded in that expertise,” he said.

They offered training to humanities faculty to provide them with their perspective on the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They conducted a roundtable and training with Student Affairs so that university staff who work directly with students would have a more nuanced understanding of recent events in a historical context.

They worked with Jewish and Muslim student groups to make sure they are “doing OK” as the conflict has lingered.

“I think throughout most of the year, we really did a fantastic job of making sure that everyone felt cared for and, you know, spoken to on a regular basis. We were really intentional with the kinds of events that we did,” Low said.

Instead of succumbing to pressure to speak to the issues immediately and do 15 different things, “we said, ‘We want to bring in the very best person who we think has amazing Arabic scholarship, Hebrew scholarship, knows Israel, knows Palestine, knows Lebanon,’” Low said.

The center brought in Seth Anziska from University College London, “who gave an amazing talk and then an amazing series of small events with students and faculty members who were concerned on the one hand about Jewish life, on the other hand, Palestine, and the war. We were very careful about how we curated things in order to make sure that everyone got included in those kinds of events,” Low said.

Anziska is the founding director of the Middle East Research Centre at University College London. His research and teaching focuses on modern Middle Eastern history, Israeli and Palestinian society and culture, and contemporary Arab and Jewish politics.

“When I talk to people about this, they go and Google it and they were like, ‘I don’t see any new stories.’ Part of what we’ve been very intentional about is staying out of the news,” Robbins said.

Robbins, appointed dean of Humanities College two years ago, said the college is working to assemble a world-class faculty of scholars to build on the current work of the Middle East Center.

Asked what success would look like this fall when students return to campus, Low said “a win looks like enhanced capacity. It looks like lots of students taking history of the modern Middle East, the history of pre-modern Middle East, thinking about Mongols in Iran, thinking about poetry in pre-Islamic Arabia, thinking about literary scholars in Iraq, thinking about Israel, Palestine but with the guidance of a world-class scholar and the sort of carefully prepared guard rails of the Middle East Center.”

Additionally, the chair of the history department and Robbins will be “making sure that we’ve done all the right things to where we’re maximizing the possibility for productive scholarly conversations,” Low said.

As Robbins put it, “The conversation isn’t hate speech or free speech. It’s like, let’s have smart speech.”

University President Taylor Randall, in an op-ed published in the Deseret News earlier this week, leans into the belief that while the university is not taking sides in the current Israel-Hamas war, “We all have a responsibility to call on our elected officials to work toward solutions that will lead to lasting peace.”

At the University of Utah, “that starts with our faculty and students, where we create an environment of rigorous thinking, self-reflection, thoughtful dialogue and viewpoint diversity. We educate our students and community on their rights and the legal constraints of those rights, and how both work together to bring about lasting change,” he wrote.

After protests on campuses elsewhere in the country, a sizable protest was conducted on the University of Utah campus on April 29. Initially, about 300 demonstrated on the steps of the administration building and then erected an encampment on the lawn at Presidents Circle.

Law enforcement declared the encampment “unlawful,” and organizers were asked to take it down and disperse.

After hours of discussion and multiple warnings to disperse the unlawful assembly on Presidents Circle on May 29, police from multiple agencies broke down the encampment shortly before midnight. A total of 21 people who declined to follow police commands to disperse and take down the camp were arrested, five of them students, according to Randall.

Protesters conducted a smaller and short-lived protest the following day and there was a small protest outside the Jon M. Huntsman Center prior to commencement on May 2.

Following those events, more than 200 faculty and staff members published a statement online that encourages the university to “designate, in collaboration with students, a safe and permissible zone for encampment as a valid form of free expression.”

It also requests “transparency about the role the university administration played in the police response.”

Finally, it asks for assurances “that future peaceful student protests will not be met with police violence.”

It also asks that the university “respond substantively to their demands,” to grant amnesty to student organizers of recent protests, end police presence at peaceful protests, and form a committee of students, faculty and administrators to examine the university’s investment portfolio and recommend a divestment strategy from those profiting off the war in Gaza.

With respect to the latter, Randall’s op-ed said private universities have sole control over their investment portfolios.

“In contrast, elected officials and state law govern public entities, like the University of Utah. In Utah, state law specifies two broad investment principles: institutional neutrality and prudent money management. Both principles limit the university’s ability to divest for geopolitical reasons,” Randall wrote.

The University of Utah will not take a side in the current Israel-Hamas war, he said.

“Public institutions in Utah are precluded by policy from doing so. Principled neutrality helps foster respect and diverse viewpoints on our campus,” he wrote.

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Randall said he wanted to “give voice to the pain and anger many of our students, faculty, staff and the people of Utah feel as they observe the destruction and human suffering in Israel and Gaza. The death and destruction invoke outrage and pain. History teaches us the horror of genocide. We live in troubled times that demand our very best to relieve this suffering.”

The university strives to balance free expression and the responsibilities that accompany rights, he said.

“The University of Utah does more than honor free expression — we celebrate it. Unfettered intellectual inquiry and the exchange of ideas and knowledge are the bedrock of our institution,” he wrote.

“Every right comes with a responsibility. The First Amendment, State of Utah administrative code and the University of Utah speech policy define reasonable limits to speech. At the University of Utah, students, faculty and others do not have the right to set up structures or camp overnight without a permit or to unlawfully occupy or trespass on University of Utah property,” he explained.

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