You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why Do Universities Fear Their Students?

Administrators’ repressive actions toward Gaza protesters betray the ideals of activism and inquiry.

NYPD officers before the police action last Tuesday that removed dozens of student protesters who had barricaded themselves inside Columbia University's Hamilton Hall.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
NYPD officers before the police action last Tuesday that removed dozens of student protesters who had barricaded themselves inside Columbia University's Hamilton Hall.

In the spring of 1985, more than 100 Columbia University students blockaded Hamilton Hall for three weeks, protesting the university’s financial investments in South Africa. At the time, a school administrator stated that bringing police on campus to quash the student protest would be “anathema” to the university.

Anti-apartheid protests were commonplace then: More than 80 students at Princeton University blocked off that institution’s main administrative building, Nassau Hall, shortly after the Columbia action. And the following year, students at UNC-Chapel Hill constructed an encampment on campus, calling for “immediate and full divestiture of all of the University’s funds from South Africa.” Chapel Hill’s chancellor granted student protesters permission to construct a “shantytown” encampment mere minutes before a rally, and the university also agreed to let the encampment stand for nearly three weeks.

Protest is a traditional part of the fabric of campus life—and if you spend much time scrutinizing university mission statements, you might get the impression that it is even an academic imperative. Yet it’s now difficult, if not impossible, to square that with the draconian response to the Gaza protests at over 50 colleges and universities across the country, which have resulted in more than 2,300 arrests or detainments. Though the P.R. departments at universities are fond of touting their schools’ rich histories of political demonstrations, and of alumni “who made history through their activism,” as Columbia’s Office of Public Affairs has put it, their deeds tell another story: Less than a day after Columbia students began occupying Hamilton Hall, in the early hours of April 30, University President Minouche Shafik urged the NYPD to “clear all individuals from Hamilton Hall and all campus encampments.” Hundreds of officers entered campus, and more than a hundred students were arrested.

“The show of force is so completely disproportionate,” Nara Milanich, a professor of history at Barnard College, told The New Republic. Columbia “amassed a force of police officers in full-on riot gear, some of whom are members of a counterterrorism unit, in order to remove several dozen 19-year-olds from a building.”

The outsize response was hardly limited to Columbia. Rather than engaging with student concerns, accommodating their activism, and avoiding excessive legal or academic punishment—or even simply acknowledging students’ right to protest at all—universities nationwide have responded with brute force: On April 30, less than a week after UNC-Chapel Hill students set up an encampment in front of the university’s administrative building, police detained 36 protesters, arrested six, and cleared out the encampment.

And less than six minutes after students at Princeton University—which professes a “commitment to prepare students for lives of service, civic engagement, and ethical leadership”—started setting up a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment,” police arrested two of them. When student protesters occupied a university administrative building four days later, it took less than two hours for police to arrest an additional 11.

Such a response is a far cry from 1978, when Princeton’s dean personally spoke with protesters during a sit-in. Princeton abandoned litigation after the 1985 anti-apartheid protests; now, its administration has promised, it will “not ask the prosecutor to drop any criminal charges brought against members of our community.” Meanwhile, 17 Princeton undergraduates have commenced a hunger strike.

Juxtaposing the robust activism of the 1970s and ’80s with today’s protests underscores just how profoundly retrograde universities’ attitudes and actions have become. “What we’re seeing here is the logical consequence of corporatization, of the sort of culture that emerges from administrative bloat,” said Clifton Crais, a professor of history at Emory University who helped spearhead a vote of no confidence in the university’s president, Gregory Fenves, after police were called to end pro-Palestinian protests. (Seventy-five percent of faculty voted “no confidence” in Fenves.) “You just have this chasm between the administration and everyone else,” Crais told TNR.

Barnard’s Milanich sees recent university responses as “part and parcel of a much broader story about the suppression of academic freedom, the suppression of expression.” Milanich says that faculty and students have “seen a steady erosion of the right to protest and really the right to expression in general on our campus.”

Indeed, before issuing arrests and suspensions, many admins declared that current protests violate “official university policy.” But there were also violations of university policy in the protests of 1978 and in 1986. What has changed is not so much policy, nor protester tactics. It’s that the schools have become less willing to accommodate activism itself.

Besides, many administrators have shown themselves indifferent to following their own policies, bringing in police in defiance of agreed-upon procedures. Emory University policy dictates “that the only time you can call in the police is when there is a threat to life and the destruction of property,” Crais, who helped author the school’s policy on open expression, told TNR. “And we simply have had neither of that.”

To be sure, the repression of college protests is not without precedent. Last Saturday marked the fifty-fourth anniversary of the 1970 Kent State shootings, when National Guardsmen shot and killed four students protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War—a tragic reminder of what can happen when educational institutions squash nonviolent student action with sheer force.

But it would appear that the specter of actual mass violence—at the hands of the state, and not the students—is absent from the memories of many current college administrators, not to mention law enforcement and politicians like House Speaker Mike Johnson, who suggested that the Columbia protests might be “an appropriate time for the National Guard.” (To date, President Joe Biden has condemned the idea of bringing in national forces.)

That hasn’t stopped university admins from justifying their use of outside law enforcement in the name of “safety.” “We must consider the safety of all of our students, faculty, and staff,” wrote UNC-Chapel Hill interim Chancellor Lee Roberts and Provost Christopher Clemens in demanding the dispersal of the protest encampment. “The takeover of Hamilton Hall and the continued encampments raise serious safety concerns,” wrote Columbia’s Shafik in her letter inviting the NYPD on campus.

This rhetoric is deeply disingenuous: Police at Chapel Hill reportedly dislocated one protester’s shoulder. Police at Columbia threw a protester down stone steps. Police at UT Austin pepper-sprayed students and detonated stun grenades. Police at Washington University in St. Louis arrested one demonstrator—a history professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville—so violently that he was hospitalized with broken ribs. Days after the Columbia police action, the NYPD admitted a sergeant “accidentally” fired his gun inside a building where protesters were being forcibly removed. This past weekend, police forcibly removed protesters from the commons at the University of Virginia by using chemical irritants. Such actions beg the question of exactly whose safety is of concern.

In fact, during the one instance when a police presence might, theoretically, have been helpful—when, that is, a group of around 200 counterprotesters began viciously beating UCLA students on April 30—it took cops more than two hours to arrive to defuse the violence. When LAPD did show up, they shot students with rubber bullets.

The clarion calls for “safety” have been accompanied by those invoking consequences to the “disruption” of “normal” university functioning. The UT System Board of Regents Chairman Kevin P. Eltife stated on April 30 that “any attempt to … disrupt UT operations will not be tolerated.” Princeton University President Chris Eisgruber, citing the university’s free speech policy, wrote on April 25 that “the University may reasonably regulate … expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.”

Of course, this is a willful misunderstanding of the role of protest. An expression of political discontent that is not disruptive is called an email, or a petition, or a meeting. Protests are by necessity disruptive: They emerge when other forms of negotiation have been exhausted. (And students and faculty have, in fact, explored such avenues.)

“The role of the administration is to defend the values of the university as a place for education, inquiry, teaching, learning, expression, and yes, even protest,” Milanich said. “And that is what the university administrators to my mind have completely ceded.”

“There have been [historically] other approaches than calling the police onto campus,” Erik Gellman, a professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, told me. “We even had a former chancellor who had committed to never inviting armed police or armed guards to suppress student free speech. Here at UNC, the recent actions of the interim Chancellor Roberts violated that commitment.”

Not all administrators have forsaken their duty to protecting student expression. Wesleyan University adopted a tack that is as sane as it is, regrettably, exceptional. Although students who assembled a pro-Palestinian encampment are “in violation of university rules,” Wesleyan’s president, Michael S. Roth, wrote in a letter to the student body on April 29, the university “will not attempt to clear the encampment” so long as the protests remain nonviolent (and further explained his decision in an essay for The New Republic). And at Brown, university leaders agreed to discuss divestment from companies affiliated with the Israeli military in exchange for the dismantling of student encampments. Similar deals were struck between administrators and student protesters at Northwestern, Rutgers, and Evergreen State College.

“Any college or university who plans on banning, suspending, or expelling students who were arrested on campus really needs to rethink that idea,” Gellman said. “That is just a complete violation of any kind of moral or ethical standard.” The cases of Wesleyan and others underscore that an institutional response to disruption, discomfort, and inconvenience on campus that relies on negotiation and accommodation, rather than force, can in fact be successful. For schools to behave otherwise betrays the very values they profess to uphold.