HLS Took a Stand for Palestine Programming; Students Must Now Bear the Cost: The Story They Don’t Want You to Hear About What Happened to Milbank Funding

We have a confession to make. We, Harvard Law School’s Justice for Palestine (JFP), are the organization responsible for the highly controversial pizza order that cost the law school (and its students) an annual $250,000 in funding for student activities.

For the uninitiated, the “Milbank Tweed Student Conference Fund” (or Milbank Fund, named after the multinational law firm that endowed it), was established in 2012 to support the activities of student-run organizations at Harvard Law School. The Dean of Students office allocates the funds through an open application process. As part of the arrangement, Milbank Fund recipients are required to recognize the contribution by ensuring that all promotional materials for Milbank-funded programming include at least one reference indicating Milbank as a headlining sponsor.

At the start of this semester, HLS announced, without explanation, the sudden termination of the Milbank Fund. We are writing today so that the record may reflect that the termination of the Milbank Fund is, in fact, completely our fault.

In our defense, we couldn’t have possibly foreseen how our actions would come to affect the rest of the campus community. On the eve of our first-ever Milbank-sponsored speaker event, titled “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack”, the only thing we were really concerned about was what type of food to order for our fellow classmates. Like many others, we are an organization that recognizes the value of quality food as a major key to the success of any lunch talk.

So we ordered pizza—about $500 worth. We made sure to get a little something for everyone, because inclusivity! We got some margheritas for the traditional, buffalo chicken for the carnivorous, and of course, some formaggio for our colleagues with a more refined palate. The pizza was delicious, and for that, we must take a moment to sincerely thank Milbank for its generous contributions.

Even though we had only used Milbank’s money for the pizza (our speakers, two civil rights attorneys and an undergraduate student, graciously offered their time at no additional cost to the school), we held up our end of the deal by including, in all promotional e-mails and at the bottom of the event’s official Facebook page, some iteration of the following sentence: “This event is brought to you by the generous support of Milbank LLP.”

Between bites of Milbank-funded formaggio, event attendees listened as speakers discussed the widespread suppression of Palestinian rights advocacy in the United States. One of the cases highlighted was that of Steven Salaita, an academic whose tenure position at the University of Illinois was revoked after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s 2014 aerial bombardment over Gaza. Salaita’s lawyers later discovered that the university had caved in to significant pressure from donors who had threatened to pull their donations if the university insisted on retaining him.

Ironically enough, a very similar sequence of events would unfold at Harvard Law School in the aftermath of our event. The very next day, the Dean of Students office—citing a flood of angry phone calls and emails received from Milbank executives and other off-campus parties over the previous 24 hours—asked an organizer of the event to disassociate from Milbank in all past and future Justice for Palestine programming.[1] As a start, the organizer was asked to immediately remove the reference to Milbank’s “generous support” from JFP’s Facebook event page.

After acknowledging that they recognized the irony in asking a student to retroactively edit the description for an event that was about free speech and its exceptions, the Dean of Students administrators proceeded to make it very clear that our cooperation would be greatly appreciated. Even though the event had already passed, it was evident that the administration was feeling tremendous pressure to do something, anything, to appease Milbank.

In exchange for a written guarantee that JFP’s future funding (be it from Milbank or any other source) would not be adversely affected, we agreed to remove the sentence from the Facebook event page. Though that guarantee was promised to us, we never got it.

Turns out, that’s because our request was directly incompatible with what Milbank was demanding. Administrators would later reveal that Milbank had gone so far as to demand that JFP’s Milbank funding be rescinded completely. According to Dean Minow, this was not a demand her administration could honor, so Milbank decided to pull out all of its annual $250,000 in student activity funding as a result of her administration’s “principled stance” in support of our right to speak openly and honestly about Palestine.

We are grateful to Dean Minow and the law school administration for refusing to buckle under intense anti-Palestinian pressure. We are also disappointed, though not particularly surprised, that at Harvard Law School, too, there exists such an exception to free speech when it comes to Palestine. Frankly, this whole ordeal should not have happened, and it is absurd that students will have to bear the (quite serious) consequences of our pizza order.

Of course, in its reaction to our event, Milbank has only proven the point we were trying to make that day. But this incident should serve also as an alarming reminder of how dependent this law school has become on earmarked funding from private donors, and how such a dependency can lead to significant compromises in the quality of both the academic experience here at HLS, and in honest political discourse more broadly.

Here, the revocation of just one annual contribution has left the law school and its students scrambling to scrape together enough funding from other sources to support this semester’s planned student activities. Some organizations have yet to fully recover, and it seems likely that funding for student activities in the coming years will continue to be significantly affected.

Moving forward, Harvard Law School should take efforts to minimize the potential for meddling from its donor overlords. For starters, please don’t try to figure out another way to keep Milbank’s money! Milbank’s behavior in this incident represents a slap in the face of academic freedom, and unless Milbank issues an apology and reinstates its unconditional support for all student programming, regardless of content, HLS would do well to end its relationship with the firm altogether.

As for us, we’ve got a lot more to say about Israeli apartheid and the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Thankfully, we’ve still got some Milbank money left over from last semester, and we fully intend to put it to good use.



[1] The administration claimed at one point, very unconvincingly, that it was not the substance of the event itself or the identity of its organizers that Milbank objected to, but rather it was the use of this political cartoon on the Facebook event page. Milbank, in an email correspondence published by a right-wing monitoring group, claimed that their request to disassociate was made because we had created a “false impression” of endorsement, presumably because we used the language of “generous support” in our required sentence of acknowledgment. Neither of these justifications should be accepted, because if they were true, it would not have been necessary then for the administration to request, as it did, that JFP refrain from associating itself with Milbank in all of its future programming. This was never about one event’s Facebook page—Milbank reacted the way it did simply because it wants nothing to do with Justice for Palestine, period.