Watch CBS News

Adjunct professor fired by DePaul after optional assignment about Gaza

DePaul adjunct professor fired after issuing assignment on Gaza, public health
DePaul adjunct professor fired after issuing assignment on Gaza, public health 03:32

CHICAGO (CBS) -- An adjunct professor was fired from her role at DePaul University, after offering an optional assignment to her students in which she asked them to explore the biological and health impacts Israel's war in Gaza has on Palestinians. 

Dr. Anne D'Aquino taught Health 194, Human Pathogens and Defense, across from the now torn-down pro-Palestinian protest encampment on the quad.

"Students were distracted," D'Aquino said. "A lot of them were volunteering at the encampment. A lot of them had friends that were at the encampment." It was a topic that was overall unavoidable, she said. 

Biochemist and professor Dr. D'Aquino was hired on April 1 to teach Health 194. She said she felt this course, in particular, would allow her to discuss the intersections of humanities and biology. 

According to the syllabus, the course in part explores microbiology research and its relevance to everyday life, current events, as well as microbiology knowledge to "big picture impacts on individuals and communities."

"Taking real-world examples and applying our biology to it, and then communicating that to the general public—since many of the students will be doing that in their profession," D'Aquino said.

D'Aquino said she was terminated for asking students to do just that—offering an optional alternative to the previously-assigned topic of avian flu, and instead focusing on the effects of the war in Gaza.

"The day that I added the optional assignment, there was a large attack on Rafah, and I didn't want that to be left unacknowledged," she said. The optional assignment asked for scientific analysis and critical thinking to understand "the impacts of genocide on human biology."

Optional Assignment by Alex Ortiz on Scribd

On May 7, one day after presenting the optional assignment, she said she received a phone call from the Chair of Health Sciences, who claimed that DePaul had received student complaints about feeling unsafe in the class and said that it was outside of the "realm of microbiology."  

D'Aquino said that the Chair noted that "for what it's worth," she had "really good content" on D2L or the online portal where students can access their class content.   

D'Aquino also said her department questioned her word choice—specifically the reference to "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing." CBS 2 asked her why she chose the words she did.

"Because those are the accurate terms," she said, "A lot of rights groups—including the UN rights group—have demonstrated that there is reasonable evidence to accurately describe this as a genocide."

D'Aquino was referring to a report from the UN Human Rights Council in March, which found "reasonable grounds" that Israel is committing a genocide in Gaza. More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

"We've heard time and time again from scientists that what's happening in Gaza, and Palestine more broadly, is a public health issue," D'Aquino said. "There isn't clean water. The infrastructure for sewage and sanitation is torn down—it's destroyed. Hospitals are destroyed. Infection is running rampant."

D'Aquino has filed an appeal and believes that the termination violated her academic freedom. In the appeal, she cites eight sources to back up her claim that the assignment was related to her course, including data from the World Health Organization and a publication in the Journal of Medicine, Surgery and Public Health.

Collapsed medical and sanitation infrastructure, severe overcrowding in shelters or encampments, and malnutrition in Gaza are the "perfect storm" for infectious disease outbreaks, according to a study published in PLOS Global Public Health journal, which D'Aquino sourced in her appeal.

"There are long-term consequences of conflict due to the disruption of routine vaccination programs as well as disease surveillance and response systems. Historically, this has manifested as a resurgence in preventable outbreaks," the study said, which also looked to war in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

In these conditions, there is "no way to mask or separate themselves from each other," D'Aquino said. 

According to the Lancet, another peer-reviewed journal cited in the appeal, the war in Gaza has led to a severe health crisis, especially for children younger than 5. The United Nations has reported more than 179,000 acute respiratory infections and a "25-fold" increase in diarrhea. 

Genocide affects not only infections and epidemiology, but also genetics, which was another part of her course, she said. 

D'Aquino highlighted the 1994 genocide in Rawada. A "first of its kind" study from the University of South Florida found that the Rwandan genocide chemically modified the DNA of victims and victim's children. The program found that the victims had gene modifications that, "genes previously implicated in risk for mental disorders such as PTSD and depression."

On May 8, two days after the optional assignment, D'Aquino received her termination letter, which cited the faculty handbook that states, " faculty are obligated to avoid significant intrusion of material unrelated to the course."

D'Aquino questioned the university's decision to terminate her within days. She also rejected the accusation that the assignment was an effort to incorporate politics. 

"I was really trying to make sure my classroom—I was, incorporating the diversity, equity and inclusion that I prioritize in all of my teaching; making sure that students are heard and seen. However, it's important to note that biologists, scientists, and anybody in any field—we don't exist in bubbles."

D'Aquino said only one student expressed concerns directly to her—a conversation they had openly with the rest of the class.

"I did have an outpouring of support from students who appreciated the assignment," D'Aquino said.  

She said she is disappointed and confused and said that it is still unclear to her what she did wrong.

"This is a reprimand towards me that's also sending a message to other faculty that to not speak up about this; that Palestine is not a topic of conversation in the classroom - and that you will be removed," she said. "I also think it's a message to students, too, that if your faculty; your staff can't speak about it, then you can't either."

A spokesperson for DePaul did not answer specific questions from CBS 2 about the investigation, including how many students complained, the scope of the university's investigation and the timeline of the termination. The university provided the following statement: 

"DePaul University is committed to academic freedom and free speech. We are also unwavering in our commitment to ensure that no acts of hatred, discrimination, harassment, Islamophobia, or antisemitism are tolerated in our community. 

"On May 8, we received multiple complaints from students regarding an assignment in Health 194, Human Pathogens and Defense. The course introduces students to the diverse microorganisms that cause significant disease within the human population. The students expressed significant concern about the introduction of political matters into the class. We investigated the matter, spoke with the faculty member, and found it had negatively affected the learning environment. The class now has a new instructor, and the faculty member has been released from their appointment as a part-time faculty member at DePaul University. 

 "DePaul's Faculty Handbook, consistent with the American Association of University Professors' 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, states that faculty are obligated to avoid significant intrusion of material unrelated to the course, to avoid any coercion of the judgment or conscience of students, to uphold the scholarly standards of one's academic discipline, and to respect the rights of other persons to hold and express different intellectual positions.

"Additionally, all faculty – including adjunct faculty – have rights under our Faculty Handbook, including the right to appeal a decision on the grounds that it violated the faculty member's academic freedom. Such appeals are heard by an Appeals Board comprised of three tenured faculty members. For adjunct faculty, the process is expedited."

D'Aquino hopes to get back to teaching the same students she left mid-quarter. The university spokesperson told CBS 2 a new instructor has filled the role. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.