After weeks of organizing petitions and meeting with administration officials, graduate students at the Josef Korbel School for International Studies are still unsatisfied with what they see as the administration's lack of commitment to protecting the academic freedom of students and faculty.
This May, 120 Korbel graduate students, or 40% of the graduate student body at Korbel, signed a petition organized by the Korbel Graduate Student Association (KGSA) demanding Dean Frederick Mayer, Provost Mary Clarke and Chancellor Jeremy Haefner take accountability for DU's handling of ex-professor Nader Hashemi's controversial comments on The Iran Podcast.
The petition listed the following demands:
- The University openly support an independent investigation into the events surrounding the accusations against Dr. Hashemi and the University of Denver's public condemnation of him on August 23, 2022
- Publicly declare that the interests of donors and other external parties do not override the University's core dedication to upholding academic freedom
- Issue a letter of apology to students of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies for driving away a valued faculty member, as well as an explanation outlining how the University will uphold and guarantee standards of freedom of expression and academic freedom for both students and faculty moving forward
KGSA representatives Lynn Chlela and Liam Palmbach decided to create the petition after hearing about Hashemi's experience at an April 10 panel on academic freedom and Palestine.
Soon after Hashemi appeared on The Iran Podcast, a slew of right-wing media outlets, conservative political pundits and Zionist organizations accused Hashemi of antisemitism and attacked his suggestion that an Israeli entity could have been behind the attack. Several called for the university to take disciplinary action against the professor.
In response to the media attention surrounding Hashemi's comments, DU released a statement distancing the university from the professor and voicing its commitment to the safety of Jewish students, faculty and staff.
Hashemi and the DU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have since accused the university of infringing on Hashemi's academic freedom and called on DU to rescind their original statement and issue an apology to the professor.
To graduate student Kerent Benjumea, DU's response has dangerous implications for student academic freedom at Korbel.
"As students, this incident demonstrated to us that even in a university, a space for free-thinking and idea-sharing, donors and those with interests have a hand in manipulating academia," she said.
After the April 10 panel, Benjumea approached Palmbach and proposed starting a petition through KGSA. Palmbach agreed, and after gathering signatures for one week, Benjumea, Chlela, Palmbach, and fellow student and signatory Berfin Kalayci took their demands to Dean Mayer.
The May 3 meeting with the Dean produced the only tangible admission from the administration. Within a week of discussing student concerns with the petition organizers, Mayer emailed a statement to all Korbel students in which he acknowledged the importance of diverse viewpoints and voiced his commitment to protecting the academic freedom of students and professors at Korbel.
Palmbach believed the Dean was "receptive" towards the petition. "He seemed genuine in his concern and in meeting the concerns of the students," he said.
Chlela and Palmbach hoped to then meet with the Provost and the Chancellor separately to discuss the petition. Instead, they had to settle for a meeting with the Chancellor's assistant.
"We tried to make it very clear to [the Chancellor and the Provost] through the assistant," Chlela said. "We are not here to get statements. We are not here to get talks. We're not here to get 'I feel you, I hear you, I see you.' We want actual actionable items from [the Chancellor and Provost] and those should align with what we're asking for."
Palmbach and Benjumea's joint meeting with the Chancellor and Provost on May 23 was equally disappointing.
"They didn't seem to understand that there's a crucial issue of loss of trust in the institution that needs to be recovered," said Palmbach. "[They] didn't really seem to understand that this is about academic freedom and not just Hashemi."
Instead of meeting or negotiating the demands laid out in the petition, the administrators pointed to the Denver Dialogues as evidence of the schools' commitment to academic freedom and offered to "vaguely" involve KGSA with the Dialogues in the fall, according to Palmbach.
Both the Chancellor and the Provost declined to comment for this story.
While they refused to establish a mechanism to protect student academic freedom, issue an apology for failing to protect the academic freedom of Hashemi and Korbel students and issue a statement declaring that donor interests will not override DU's commitment to academic freedom, the Chancellor and Provost did send out a brief 88-word email to all Korbel graduate students following the meeting.
Instead of acknowledging the petition and its demands, the email included a link to the university's statement on the David Horowitz Freedom Center's attacks on Professor Hashemi and reassured students that "we're delighted to underscore our commitment to free expression and academic freedom and share information on the variety of related programming hosted at DU."
To Chlela and Palmbach, this was inadequate. Korbel is a world-renowned school for international relations. Its alumni–Condoleeza Rice, George W. Casey, Cindy Corville–are well known and frequently recounted in the classroom. Korbel is also a major admissions draw for DU. Such a school, Chlela argued, must be able to foster difficult discussions.
"The international studies school is the place where you are supposed to be able to bring up controversial topics [and] be able to talk about conflicts like Palestine/Israel, be able to talk about China and the Uighurs, be able to talk about the Rohingyas," said Chlela.
Although she and Palmbach have now graduated, Chlela hopes future students will continue to hold the administration accountable for its public commitments to academic freedom.
"To see that such a topic created this much chaos and...there wasn't any mechanism set in place to ensure, not even just the safety of Nader Hashemi, but [also] students moving forward, is just unacceptable," she said.
Dean Fritz Mayer did not respond to a request for comment for this story.