Max Weiss, a professor of history, stands at the April 29 Clio Hall occupation between protesters and Public Safety officers, who detained a student and a postdoc in a University bus.
Julie Bonette
Max Weiss and others seek to play a “supportive role for students” with statements and lectures at encampment

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect new information on the events at Clio Hall. 

While Princeton’s pro-Palestinian protests have largely been student-led, some faculty members have played a key part in the movement. From releasing petitions and statements to requesting a special May 20 meeting of the faculty, the role of these professors has grown in recent weeks along with the urgency of the protests.  

When the encampment at Princeton began on April 25, history professor Max Weiss was the first to hold his class, History of Palestine/Israel, in McCosh Courtyard, where the protesters initially resided, as a sign of solidarity. His students joined the crowd on that warm and sunny day as Weiss lectured for more than 30 minutes on the history that led to the current Israel-Hamas war.  

Since then, dozens of Princeton professors have also held lectures at the encampment, spoken words of encouragement to protesters, and offered help, including some who were present when students began breaking down the encampment that ended May 15.   

“The basic role of faculty is to support the students,” said Nancy Coffin, director of the Arabic Language Program and senior lecturer. She also held a class at the encampment, although she told PAW the day before the protest began that she had reservations and wanted students to have the chance to opt-out of these lectures. “I wish the faculty were doing more.”  

Weiss, who helped found Princeton’s branch of Faculty for Justice in Palestine (FJP), estimates that about 50 faculty members are actively involved in the group. (Princeton has 1,315 faculty, including visitors and part-timers.) He said FJP was aware of plans to launch Princeton’s encampment but did not know details in advance. 

“FJP at Princeton has primarily been concerned with playing a supportive role for students, both in order to help them forward their own political cause or movement, but also to stand alongside them in order to shield them from either public threat or University reprisal,” he told PAW, adding, “FJP has begun to function in a more autonomous way.”  

One example of that support was when Ruha Benjamin, a professor of African American studies, entered Clio Hall with three other faculty members and a group of students who occupied the building on April 29. Other faculty members were outside at that time, including Weiss who instructed the crowd throughout, including yelling from the steps of the building, "Fourteen students have occupied this building in solidarity with the Palestinian people of Gaza ... one faculty member has occupied this building." The crowd roared and banged buckets.

Weiss was referring to Benjamin, who later said she was present as a “faculty observer,” although Dean of the Faculty Gene Jarrett ’97 told PAW in an email the role of “faculty observer” or “legal observer” is not recognized in the University’s Rights, Rules, Responsibilities or in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Benjamin released a statement after the demonstration explaining what she observed inside, a narrative that differed significantly from what W. Rochelle Calhoun, vice president for campus life, wrote in an email to the University community.  

Other activities have included writing opinion letters in The Daily Princetonian and circulating open letters calling out Princeton administration and The Board of Trustees. One letter that calls for Calhoun to resign, had 174 signatures as of May 15 from faculty, lecturers, postdocs, and research scholars and fellows. Weiss also said that FJP had reached out to President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and Jarrett to try and set up meetings with them.  

Also in late April, six faculty members requested a special faculty meeting “to address intimidatory and chilling disciplinary action against student free speech and assembly,” according to a memo from Eisgruber. The faculty — Benjamin, Curtis Deutsch, Lidal Dror, Molly Greene, V. Mitch McEwen, and Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06 — presented the University with six proposals, including divestment from Israel and resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and faculty boycott of all Israeli businesses and institutions. 

Eisgruber agreed to hold a May 20 meeting but said there were “serious questions” about whether five of the six proposals are within the faculty’s jurisdiction and that the meeting would only address granting amnesty to student protesters. In a May 13 email, Eisgruber said the University was considering “restorative justice” for those arrested and suspended as a way for students to take accountability but still be allowed to participate in Commencement.  

Questions and concerns about the role of some faculty members throughout the protests remain. Keith Whittington, a professor of politics, said the protesters have been largely reasonable, with the exception of the events at Clio Hall, and that the actions of some faculty members have gone too far, such as holding classes at the encampment. “I think some faculty have behaved very badly during these protests and have engaged in some pretty serious professional misconduct.”  

He went on to add, “I think faculty should not be encouraging or facilitating or participating in violation of University conduct rules and how expressive activities occur, and there ought to be disciplinary consequences for faculty, just like there are for students for violating those rules.”  

Pointing to University policies, Jarrett, the dean of the faculty, said in an email that the “rules seek to ensure that the classroom is a site of respect, inclusiveness, and conducive to learning.” He added, “Faculty are free to participate in protests as long as they abide by University policies.”  

Jarrett also touched on the topic in a May 1 memo to faculty. In the memo, he wrote, “My office has also heard concerns, and is reviewing complaints, about the conduct of some faculty and academic professionals related to recent campus protest activity. These complaints include allegations, for example, that instructors may have compelled students to attend classes that were held among protest activities; or that colleagues may have been involved in other activities that violated University policies.” 

Beyond this memo, all the professors who spoke to PAW for this article said they’ve heard little from Jarrett or other University officials on the protest as it relates to faculty. 

When asked if professors fear repercussions for their involvement, they said no. “I haven’t done anything unlawful,” said Gyan Prakash, a history professor and FJP member. “So, I don’t expect any reprisal.”