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After discrimination complaint, Rice orders SA to table resolution divesting from Israel-aligned companies

Administrative demand to Senate has ‘very little precedent,’ SA president says


By Prayag Gordy and Riya Misra     4/10/24 12:06am

The Student Association is indefinitely tabling a resolution to boycott and divest SA funds from Israel-aligned companies after a student filed a discrimination complaint with the Office of Access, Equity and Equal Opportunity, Student Association President Jae Kim told the Thresher.

Richard Baker, the director of the AEEO, notified Kim and the resolution’s authors of the complaint March 27. The complainant had requested that the Senate withhold voting on the resolution, which Baker granted while the complaint is being investigated, Kim said.

The Thresher obtained Baker’s order from a person familiar with the complaint. Baker did not respond to a request to confirm the validity of the text.

“Until further notice, you are directed not to vote on [S.RES 02] or any equivalents to [S.RES 02]. Also, until further notice, you are directed to take all necessary steps to ensure the Student Association does not vote upon it or any equivalents,” Baker wrote. “As a reminder, Rice’s Code of Student Conduct requires students to comply with directions from Rice officials, and makes it a violation not to do so.”

It was not immediately clear what procedural steps the Senate used to table the resolution.

Originally timed for a vote on Monday, April 1, the resolution would have prohibited SA-managed funds — some $400,000 of student activity fees — from going to companies on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement’s list.

BDS describes itself as a non-violent movement that works to “end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.” However, some Jewish groups call the movement antisemitic and say it is aimed at “delegitimizing” Israel.

A university spokesperson told the Thresher that the equal opportunity office instructed the SA to table the resolution. They declined to provide additional information at that time.

“The student association has tabled the resolution citing instructions from the Office of Access, Equity and Equal Opportunity,” the spokesperson wrote.

The resolution’s authors claimed the administration’s response was an “overstep of power,” saying they were “surprised and disappointed” by the resolution’s tabling.

“Given other axes of pressure to dismiss the resolution, in the form of administrative concerns as well as targeted harassment and threats, we believe this is a direct violation of our freedom of expression,” they wrote in a statement to the Thresher. “We view this as an overstep of power by the administration on Student Association proceedings.”

The resolution’s sponsors spoke on the condition of anonymity due to safety concerns.

Kim said there is little precedent for Rice’s administration to “dictate” SA processes. After receiving Baker’s order, he consulted with Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman and SA advisor Heather-Reneé Gooch.

“Based on those discussions, I decided that his authority precedes the Senate’s independence as the student governing body,” Kim said.

“What I’m concerned about is, is this setting a precedent?” Kim added. “It’s on Dr. Baker’s timeline now.”

Kim sent a notice through the SA’s public listserv March 30 announcing the tabling of the resolution. He told the Thresher he does not know the timeline nor any procedural details of Baker’s investigation.

Baker, Gorman, Gooch and Rice general counsel Omar Syed did not respond to interview requests.

An ‘uncertain’ legal terrain

Two senators introduced S.RES 02, “Student Association Boycott and Divestment from Corporations Complicit in the Ongoing Genocide in Gaza,” at the Monday, March 25 Senate meeting.

S.RES 02 faced its first legal questions as soon as it was introduced. At the March 25 Senate, one student claimed that the resolution could open Rice up to litigation.

“Nearly every other university that has passed a resolution like this is currently under investigation by the Department of Education for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act,” Duncan College junior Simon Yellen said at Senate.

The next day, Syed told the Thresher that the resolution would face legal uncertainties as it progressed.

“If this resolution moves forward, the legal terrain will become very uncertain, especially because there are alternative approaches that can be used to express the humanitarian sentiments in this resolution while upholding the Rice community’s commitment to education, conversation, dialogue, nondiscrimination and inclusiveness,” Syed wrote in a statement.

Under Texas law, state agencies cannot enter contracts with entities that boycott Israel.

On March 27, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order requiring higher education institutions to update free speech policies to “address the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts on university campuses.” The governor specifically called for universities to ensure that organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine “are disciplined for violating these policies.”

Rice must comply with federal civil rights laws, including Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.” Compliance with these laws ensures that large swaths of Rice’s funding — including “campus wide federal student financial aid, federal grants and other financial resources” — aren’t jeopardized, a university spokesperson wrote in a statement to the Thresher.

Earlier this week, the sponsors of the resolution told the Thresher that “any legal issues raised” were “likely fearmongering tactics to discredit the resolution.”

“In our initial discussions with legal representatives, passing this resolution would not impact any federal or state contracts, funding or other services and any mischaracterization is a clear attempt by an opposition to place fear into our representatives in regards to voting,” they wrote.

The resolution

S.RES 02 would have created an “Ethical Spending Advisory Board” to monitor compliance with the BDS list. The ESAB would track the spending of all SA-disbursed funds to look for violations of the BDS targets. The board would be subsidiary to the Blanket Tax Committee and would consist of five voting members: three senate members, the SA’s external vice president and one member of the Blanket Tax Committee.

The SA manages about $400,000 in funds from Rice’s student activity fee, known as the Blanket Tax. Some large student groups — such as Rice Program Council and the student media organizations — get annual budgets from the Blanket Tax, and other student organizations can request one-time allocations through the Initiative Fund.

The resolution follows similar initiatives at other universities, including the University of Houston, Columbia University and a few schools in the University of California system.

Earlier this month, students at Vanderbilt University introduced a referendum to adopt BDS guidelines for its student government, but the university administration removed it from the student ballot. Palestine Legal, a national advocacy group protecting people in support of Palestinian rights, represented the university’s divestment coalition and sent a cease and desist letter to Vanderbilt administration alleging a breach of First Amendment rights.

“We have always been committed to free speech and free expression as guided by the First Amendment. But strictly speaking, it doesn’t apply” to private universities, Vanderbilt’s chancellor said in response.

After the Vanderbilt referendum’s cancellation, students launched a sit-in at the administrative building. Twenty-seven students were suspended and four were arrested. An outside journalist was also arrested during the protests.

[April 2, 2024 9:00 p.m.] This article was updated with the text of Baker’s order to table the resolution and updated comment from a university spokesperson.

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