January-March 2024Vol.XXXVI No. 3

Timeline that Led to the Suspension of the Coalition Against Apartheid (CAA)

Franz-Josef Ulm

Since October 7, 2023, tension has been rising between maintaining an orderly and civil campus environment within a set of rules and the need on matters of moral urgency to be somewhat flexible in applying those rules. We now have reached a breaking point, and failure to resolve this tension will lead to disillusionment and disengagement within the student and grad-worker body, instill and solidify the fear of retribution and a deep sense of intimidation among faculty, and will ultimately increase – not decrease – polarization, precisely the opposite of what should be happening in an educational institute of higher learning, and especially at MIT.

On February 13, 2024, the Coalition Against Apartheid (CAA), an ASA-recognized (Association of Student Activities) student organization on the MIT campus, was suspended for holding a rally on February 12, 2024, from approximately 5-6 pm on the steps of the Stratton Student Center followed by an approximately 30 minute temporary banner display vigil in Lobby 7. This suspension and associated sanctions were announced via a triple communication route: (1) a suspension letter sent by the Division of Student Life (DSL) to CAA as a group; (2) a sanction letter sent by DSL to 13 executive members of CAA temporarily banning students from all leadership roles in all student groups at MIT under the threat of permanent suspension; and (3) the public announcement of the suspension of CAA by President Kornbluth on a publicly accessible YouTube video. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that an MIT-internal disciplinary measure against a student organization was the focus of a public statement by the MIT administration [1]. The public statement has brought an ongoing MIT internal disciplinary investigation into the public sphere. Adjudicated in social media, it has exposed the student leadership of CAA to doxing and other forms of harassment.

It is therefore important that we, faculty, not rush to judgment, but first know the facts. Our purpose here is not to take sides or adjudicate this case, but present facts, timelines, and probable causalities, rather than opinions. We also made the deliberate choice to avoid, where possible, a contextualization of the events in the ongoing tragedy in Gaza. This is not out of lack of empathy, but for the purpose of focusing the attention on MIT, its core values and the MIT community of which CAA is part. For this purpose, we have relied on publicly available sources, emails, letters, and text messages with clear time stamps. Our intention is to leave the interpretation to the reader.

Context: The events organized by CAA on November 2, 2023 (protest at the offices of MIT’s International Science and Technology Initiatives, MISTI) and November 9, 2023 (sit-in in Lobby 7), led to an investigation by MIT’s Institute Discrimination & Harassment Response Office (IDHR). In contrast to its mission at MIT to “respond to reports of harmful actions and behaviors, prevent recurrence, and remedy the effects by providing impartial investigations, resources, and accommodations” [2], IDHR’s involvement in “MIT’s disciplinary process handling incidents related to campus tensions stemming from the Israel-Hamas war” [3] appears to be somewhat different. According to its website, IDHR triages such incidents in consultation “with other relevant units, including the Division of Student Life (DSL), Human Resources (HR), and the Office of General Counsel,” and investigates “the facts of any cases alleging discrimination or discriminatory harassment,” while “the faculty-led Committee on Discipline (COD) is responsible for reviewing and resolving the case” [3]. There are no doubt different ways of reading IDHR’s public statement of the roles of IDHR and COD (and other relevant units) in choosing to hear, investigate, and adjudicate cases. De facto, it puts IDHR in the role of the prosecutor, while attributing to COD the role of the judiciary within the Institute. The IDHR investigation of CAA as a group started in mid-November 2023, extending to individual CAA members in January 2024, the day after Harvard’s President, Dr. Claudine Gay, resigned. During the month of January, extensive interrogations of students took place of up to three hours duration. During this process, a faculty advisor was present without speaking rights. Ruled by strict confidentiality, “[t]o protect the confidentiality of cases and individuals” [2], we will never know what happened in these IDHR interrogations. There is, however, evidence of traumatic psychological and physical distress caused by the process among the investigated students. To protest the style and form of this investigation within the bounds of strict confidentiality, a group of approximately 20 student supporters read MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” [4] in front of the offices of IDHR on January 24, 2024, documented on video. In a letter dated January 25, 2024, DSL considered this action as potentially harassing or retaliatory behavior directed toward IDHR in violation of MIT’s non-retaliation policy [5] and put three individually identified CAA members under a “no contact order.” In a follow-up letter dated January 29, 2024, DSL announced to CAA the implementation of “interim actions to prevent future problems.” These interim actions extended the no contact order to all CAA members and severely restricted confidential, unmediated, and equal access of the students, “in their individual capacity” and “in good faith,” to IDHR assistance in cases of “any behavior that (. . .) violates MIT policies” (including, for instance, Gender-Based Discrimination, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Misconduct, Intimate Partner Violence, or Stalking [2]). To the best of our knowledge, as of today the no contact order and the restricted access to IDHR assistance are still in place. Moreover, the interim actions prohibited CAA (and potential substitute organizations) “from organizing any events, including demonstrations and protests, on the MIT campus until [CAA] meet with Institute officials to discuss MIT’s requirements for protests and demonstrations.” Finally, DSL (as part of the executive branch of the Institute) informed CAA that it would share this information with COD (the judiciary branch of the Institute), insisting that “failure to follow [DSL’s] guidelines may result in a new COD case or be an aggravating factor in the COD’s consideration of CAA’s conduct.” This occurred while COD was still in the process or in preparation of adjudicating two separate cases: CAA as a group and CAA executives as individuals. The letter had its effect: it brought a month of heightened activism to a halt one week before the semester started.

The welcome-back-to-campus message came promptly on January 31, 2024, in the form of “reasonable ’time, place, and manner’ restrictions dictated by the Institute” announced by email to the MIT community at large by Provost Barnhart and Chancellor Noble [6]. There are two notable key restrictions of relevance for the sequence of events: (i) A three-day rule for registration of vigils, protests, or demonstrations organized by any Institute group [7], which requires “the sponsoring groups [to] meet with SOLE [Office of Student Organizations, Leadership and Engagement [8], a sub-division of DSL] at least three days in advance of the gathering”; and (ii) MIT’s administration’s right to impose interim measures, which – akin to an emergency ordinance – involves “immediate action in order to protect the health, safety, wellbeing, or educational or working experience of students, employees, or the broader MIT community” [9], “while the COD takes time to formally review a complaint” [6]. But had these ‘time, place, and manner’ restrictions been dictated by the government, a 1989 Supreme Court ruling would have required (1) “[t]he regulation [to] be content-neutral, (2) (. . .) narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental [i.e., MIT’s] interest, [and] (3) “to leave open ample alternative channels for communicating the speaker’s [i.e., CAA’s] message” [10]. Moreover, we have reviewed 50 years of free expression events at MIT but could not find the three-day rule as an overriding rule in the books. This does not mean that it did not exist before October 7, 2023, and subsequent updates of the “MIT Guidelines for Free Expression at Campus Events, Vigils, Protests, and Demonstrations,” last on January 31, 2024 [7]. We could neither confirm nor falsify its existence and enforcement in the past. Finally, we also reviewed rules regarding gatherings in Lobby 7 and its seasoned history as a locus of protest at MIT (from the Vietnam War protests in 1969, to the 2016 Trump Muslim Ban Rally of the MIT community and the 2020 Black Lives Matter Rally). The list of dedicated “preferred locations that may be approved for demonstrations” at MIT posted by DSL on November 8, 2023 [11] ahead of CAA’s November 9, 2023 rally, does not include Lobby 7. To the best of our knowledge, however, it does not exclude Lobby 7 from student protests [12].

February 2-6, 2024: Two meetings of CAA with Institute officials of DSL and SOLE took place on February 2 and 6, 2024 to discuss the new protest guidelines. In compliance with DSL’s interim actions of January 29, 2024, these meetings carry some weight to understand the sequel. First, in these meetings the CAA students affirmed their right to protest. They did not agree to the three-day rule for registering protests, on the basis that it excludes consideration of emergency actions and that the approval process itself would dilute the power of protest if restrictions were laid down. Second, CAA agreed to provide in a timely fashion essential information to DSL and SOLE about future protests, including expected size, expected audience, and resources (such as a sound amplification system). Evidence of the mutual agreement of both parties can be found in an email from DSL to CAA on February 9, 2024: “Given these conversations, CAA is no longer prohibited from organizing events, including demonstrations and protests, on the MIT campus.” That is, not only did these meetings open the communication between CAA and the administration, but CAA acknowledged in these meetings the broad spirit of regulations and communication requirements for protests. While there are no detailed notes from these meetings, an understanding was reached that the started communication addressing emergency situations would continue, and that if such emergency situations arose, CAA would communicate and coordinate as early as possible with SOLE and DSL.

February 12, 2024: Such an emergency arose, in the eyes of CAA, in the night of February 11 to 12, 2024, in form of the aerial bombing of Rafah in Gaza. The consideration by CAA of the events as emergency was amplified by the fact that the families of several MIT students affiliated with CAA reside in or have been displaced from their homes to Rafah. The following sequence of events is based solely on timelines of email communications, social media postings, and text messages:





Overnight Decision by CAA to hold an Emergency Rally at 5 pm.


11:16 am

CAA posts announcement of Emergency Rally on CAA-Instagram page.


11:40 am

CAA is informed by COD that it is placed on probation.



First unsuccessful attempt by CAA to meet with SOLE to communicate emergency situation and coordinate Emergency Rally.


12:54 pm

Second successful attempt by CAA to communicate and coordinate Emergency Rally.

–        SOLE offers sound amplification system for rally. 

–        CAA executives check among each other whether “conversation is sufficient in terms of communication w. admin” (text messages)


1:11 pm

CAA posts official invitation for Emergency Rally to MIT community via “dormspam”


1:58 pm

CAA informs DSL leadership about Emergency Rally, and meeting with SOLE.


3:12 pm

CAA obtains sound amplification system from SOLE.


3:48 pm

DSL informs CAA that DSL does not approve rally, “given that [CAA] ha[d] not notified the office within three days of holding it”.


5:00 pm

Start of Rally in front of the Stratton Student Center.


We could not find evidence for a causality between CAA’s Instagram posting (at 11:16 am) and COD’s letter of probation (at 11:40 am). The time sequence only suggests that CAA was not organizing the rally intentionally in defiance of COD’s decision. In contrast, the repeated outreach (noon, 12:54 pm) of CAA to SOLE suggests that CAA followed their understanding of the outcome of the February 2-6, 2024 meetings. There is strong evidence of reciprocity of this understanding from SOLE, such as the offering of the sound system by SOLE four hours before the rally’s start and CAA receiving the sound amplification system from SOLE at 3:12 pm, i.e., 36 minutes before DSL prohibited the emergency rally by email at 3:48 pm. While CAA had informed its followers via Instagram at 11:16 am, CAA only informed the MIT community at large via “dormspam” [13] at 1:11 pm, i.e., concurrent to the meeting with SOLE. While we still lack an understanding of the mismatch between SOLE’s accommodation and DSL leadership’s rejection of CAA’s emergency rally, there is no doubt that until 3:48 pm on Monday February 12, 2024, i.e., until one hour before the start of the rally, CAA acted within the (perceived or real) bounds set forth by the meetings of February 2 and 6, 2024.

CAA was suspended on February 13, 2024. MIT took immediate action “to protect the intellectual integrity, health, safety, wellbeing, or educational or working experience of the campus community.” It suspended CAA on the grounds of being in violation of the “time, place, and manner” restrictions set forth on January 31, 2024 [6], use of an “unapproved location” (Lobby 7), and this “on the same day that the Committee on Discipline (COD) notified CAA that it was placed on probation.”

In summary, on the reading of the sequence of events the broad spirit of the regulations was indeed respected by the CAA but the rigidity of the regulations and their applications in the moment of high moral imperative has caused this rift, with the students themselves being punished and placed at personal and professional risk. We need to do better, think harder with mind and heart. Here at MIT.

February 22, 2024

Addendum: After submission of this article, we were informed that on February 29, 2024, i.e., one month after it had been issued (January 25 and 29, 2024), the no contact order had been partially lifted, allowing students to reach out to IDHR without the mediation of DSL (for instances in cases of Title IX violations).

Acknowledgement: An earlier draft of this timeline article was shared for fact checking with the leadership/executives of both the Division of Student Life and CAA. The author is grateful for comments and corrections received from the many faculty reviewing earlier drafts. The author is solely responsible for putting the facts together.


[1] In the past, MIT has issued public statements on ongoing external investigations; see for instance the Star Simpson Case and the 2007 Manning–Winston faculty Resolution, which requested that “the MIT administration refrain from making public statements that characterize or otherwise interpret – through news office releases, legal agents, or any other means – the behavior and motives of members of the MIT community whose actions are the subject (real or potential) of pending criminal investigation. We offer this resolution to foster mutual trust within the MIT community and to promote due process for all” [Avoiding a Rush to Judgement: Implications of the Star Simpson Affair (mit.edu)].    

[2] Annual Reports | MIT Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response Office:  IDHR’s 2022-2023 Annual report evokes 155 cases at MIT that involve Gender-Based Discrimination, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Misconduct, Intimate Partner Violence, or Stalking. [IDHR Annual Report 22-23 FINAL.pdf (mit.edu)]

[3] MIT’s Disciplinary Process for Incidents Related to Israel-Hamas War | MIT Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response Office

[4] The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. written on April 16, 1963 is considered as one of the most important texts of the civil rights movement in the United States, not least for its proclamation that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

[5] 9.7 Non-Retaliation | Policies (mit.edu): “No one shall be retaliated against for, in good faith, raising a complaint of a violation of an MIT policy, participating in the Institute’s complaint resolution process (whether as a complainant, a witness, an investigator, or in any other capacity), or opposing a violation of an MIT policy.”

[6] C. Barnhart, M. Nobles, Ground rules for our community (mjt.lu), email 1/31/2024.   

[7] MIT Guidelines for Free Expression at Campus Events, Vigils, Protests, and Demonstrations – MIT Resources, updated January 31, 2024.

[8] Student Organizations, Leadership and Engagement | Division of Student Life (mit.edu)

[9] III. Interim, Administrative, and Supportive Measures | Committee on Discipline

[10] In the public domain, such “time, place, and manner” restrictions have been considered compatible with the First Amendment provided they satisfy “a three-prong test outlined by the Supreme Court in Ward v. Rock Against Racism: (1) The regulation must be content neutral; (2) It must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest; and (3) It must leave open ample alternative channels for communicating the speaker’s message; cited from Time, Place and Manner Restrictions – The Free Speech Center (mtsu.edu).

[11] Campus safety and policies around protests, postering and free expression | MIT Organization Chart (November 8, 2023).

[12] MIT Values and the Protests in Lobby 7 – MIT Faculty Newsletter

[13] How to send dormspam | how-to-dormspam (mit.edu): “Dormspam is the act of emailing the social lists of MIT dorms and the IFC, and is used for advertising events, club announcements, surveys, and more. (. . .) dormspam reaches most MIT undergraduates and anyone else subscribed (which can include dorms’ House Teams, and even some MIT faculty and staff).