Citing safety concerns, University of Vermont cancels event with Palestinian writer

The university’s Division of Safety & Compliance told organizers that it could not “adequately provide safety and security” for a planned event with the poet and journalist Mohammed El-Kurd.

By: - October 30, 2023 4:30 am

The Davis Center on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington on Sept. 20. (Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger)

The University of Vermont has canceled a lecture planned for this week featuring a Palestinian writer, saying it would be unable to ensure the safety of the event.

Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian poet and journalist from Jerusalem, was scheduled to speak Thursday evening at UVM’s Davis Center, according to an online listing. El-Kurd planned to discuss “representation and misrepresentation of Palestinians in the U.S.,” according to an event description.

But on Saturday, the university’s Division of Safety & Compliance emailed event organizers to tell them that it could not go forward as planned.

“It is our judgment, based on global, national, and local events, that we cannot adequately provide safety and security for this event as it is currently planned,” the division said in the unsigned email, a copy of which was shared with VTDigger. “The university has attempted to work with you to reschedule the event for a later date but you were unable or unwilling to reschedule.”

The decision sparked immediate backlash. The nonprofit Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series, which was sponsoring the event along with the UVM departments of English and Sociology, called it “deeply disturbing.”

Adam White, a spokesperson for the university, said in an email to VTDigger that the event had been planned months ago, before the outbreak this month of the Israel-Hamas war.

“Based on conversations over the past week with community members, campus partners and public safety officials, our assessment is that holding the event on campus this week raises safety and security concerns that cannot be sufficiently mitigated,” White said. “Therefore, the university has determined it will not provide meeting space for the Miller Lecture Series event on October 26.”

White did not respond to a question about whether the university had received threats related to the event.

El-Kurd is a poet, journalist and activist who has written extensively in condemnation of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. He could not immediately be reached for comment.

New Mexicans pressure federal lawmakers to join calls for ceasefire in Gaza

College campuses across the U.S. are grappling with how to respond to the latest violence in Israel and Gaza, amid sometimes conflicting demands from students, faculty, administrators and donors. The New York Times reported Friday that, across the U.S. and Europe, multiple events featuring Palestinian speakers or subject matter had been called off.

The cancellation of Thursday’s event appears to be the first such instance at Vermont’s flagship public university.

In its statement Monday, the lecture series said, “The upshot is that Palestinian voices are selectively silenced just at the moment when we most need space for debate and dialogue in an attempt to understand the current conflict.” Organizers instead plan to hold the event online.

Dedicated to the late UVM philosophy professor Will Miller, the Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series aims to “provide a continuing program of radical analyses of social, ecological and political concerns,” according to its website.

In a Monday afternoon statement, UVM Hillel executive director Matt Vogel said that the event had not been called off as a result of pressure from Jewish organizations or individuals.

“Hillel at UVM understands that the Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series event this week was canceled due to security concerns,” Vogel said. “We reject any claims that Jewish groups or people are responsible for UVM’s decision to cancel the event.”

In response to emailed questions from VTDigger, Vogel said, “Students have reported that they are seeing this narrative being spread online and some media inquiries have specifically asked about this framing.”

Vogel did not explicitly state whether or not he believed the event should take place as originally planned.

“UVM Hillel supports events that adhere to the University’s Common Ground values of respect, openness, and responsibility,” he said. “As a community that values a multiplicity of narratives to help students find their own relationships to events in Israel and Gaza, we value dialogue across differences for the sake of greater understanding among our university community.”

As of Monday afternoon, an online letter-writing campaign had sent over 1,000 notes in support of El-Kurd. A flyer posted on campus called for a Tuesday afternoon rally, according to a photo shared with VTDigger.

Helen Scott, a UVM professor of English and a board member of the Will Miller Lecture Series, said that last week, sponsors had been “assured that the university values academic freedom and would not cancel the event.” Then over the weekend, she said, UVM administrators reversed course.

Jennifer Strickler, the chair of UVM’s Sociology Department, said some students had asked for the event to be canceled, but she was unaware of any actual threats. Strickler suggested simply postponing the event, she said, but El-Kurd had been booked many months prior and had a full schedule.

“In light of that, I think that free speech and academic freedom are very important and our department decided that cancel culture is absolutely anathema to what universities stand for,” she said.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.