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Talking with a Vanderbilt senior expelled for role in pro-Palestinian protests

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Elite schools have taken different approaches to student protests against the war in Gaza. Vanderbilt University has had fewer arrests and less police presence while repercussions for students there have been more severe. Marianna Bacallao from WPLN in Nashville reports.

MARIANNA BACALLAO, BYLINE: Three Vanderbilt students were expelled for their role in a pro-Palestinian demonstration inside an administration building in March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting) Free, free Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Free, free Palestine.

BACALLAO: At the time, protests on college campuses were just getting started. Footage shows students pushing past a security guard to gain entrance to Kirkland Hall. The three students at the front of that charge were expelled, including senior Devron Burks. Vanderbilt police arrested Burks, and he says he spent six hours in a cell.

DEVRON BURKS: It's a very clear loss of autonomy that I think these systems do on purpose. They strip you of your autonomy to strip you of your fight.

BACALLAO: Burks says his expulsion letter came a few weeks shy of graduation, citing charges of physical abuse. Vanderbilt's chancellor Daniel Diermeier says that's because he was one of the protesters who forced their way past a campus safety officer.

DANIEL DIERMEIER: The security guard was injured, was pushed into a door frame, was off duty for two weeks. He's back now, and he's fine.

BACALLAO: Diermeier says that the expulsions are about student conduct, not Vanderbilt's free speech policy, where students have to request to protest 48 hours in advance.

DIERMEIER: Some people have argued that this has something to do with free speech. My point of view has had nothing to do with free speech. Our students have the ability to protest freely and have taken advantage of these opportunities repeatedly.

BACALLAO: But the March protests didn't get approval. Burks and 26 others protested anyway.

BURKS: Right now I am trying to figure out if I'm going to get my degree.

BACALLAO: Burks still has a pending assault charge and an expulsion to contend with. Some faculty members say his punishment goes too far.

TERRY MARONEY: He needs to be allowed to graduate.

BACALLAO: That's Terry Maroney, a law professor at Vanderbilt. She's one of more than 170 faculty members who have signed an open letter opposing the administration's response to the protest.

MARONEY: He's four years in. It is so wildly out of proportion to anything he's alleged to have done to now say that he is literally no longer a part of the Vanderbilt community.

BACALLAO: Maroney says the administration could have used other disciplinary sanctions instead of expulsion. Since the crackdown, student protesters have mostly gone off campus to protest alongside demonstrators from the larger Nashville community. Despite the expulsion, Burks says he doesn't regret what he's done.

BURKS: I'm glad that the students at Vanderbilt were a part of something greater in advocating for Palestine.

BACALLAO: Burks is still waiting to see if his diploma can be conferred even if he didn't walk at graduation.

For NPR News, I'm Marianna Bacallao in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marianna Bacallao