How Should Colleges Handle Student Protests?

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How Should Colleges Handle Student Protests?

After years of often loose enforcement of their own rules, some of the country’s most high-profile academic institutions are getting bolder, suspending and in some cases expelling students. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University and Brown University have recently taken swift and decisive action against student protesters, including making arrests.

And on Thursday, Columbia University hit its limit with student protesters who had set up dozens of tents on campus, sending in the New York Police Department to make arrests. The arrests followed congressional testimony on Wednesday, in which the president of Columbia, Nemat Shafik, said the school had delivered an unambiguous message to students that misconduct would not be tolerated.

College officials are driven by criticism from alumni, donors and Republican lawmakers, but in interviews they also described a gnawing sense that civility on campus has broken down.

They say that lately, some student protests have become so disruptive that they not only are interfering with their ability to provide an education, but they also have left many students, particularly Jewish ones, fearing for their safety.

Recalibrating isn’t necessarily easy, as many universities are learning. Efforts by administrators to claw back some of their authority over campus demonstrations are being met with pushback from students, faculty and civil liberties groups who say a university’s role is to foster debate — even if it’s messy, rude and disruptive — not attempt to smother it.

Campus activists said the aggressive enforcement of the student disciplinary process by universities is a new and concerning development. “This is an escalation,” said Rosy Fitzgerald of the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a nonprofit that is tracking how schools are responding to student demonstrators.

Suspensions and expulsions “didn’t used to be a tactic,” she said. “But now we’re seeing that as an immediate response.”

In her congressional testimony, Dr. Shafik revealed that 15 Columbia students have been suspended in recent weeks. She also said the school had for the first time in 50 years made the decision to ask the N.Y.P.D. to assist with protests.

Vanderbilt University issued what are believed to be the first student expulsions over protests related to the Israel-Hamas conflict. More than two dozen demonstrators stormed the university president’s office — injuring a security guard and shattering a window — and occupied it for more than 20 hours. Vanderbilt suspended every student involved in the demonstration. Three were expelled.

Student protests have a history of being disruptive and occasionally violent, from the Vietnam War era to today. Since Donald J. Trump’s election in 2016, many campuses have become especially volatile places, seeing an increase in angry demonstrations over conservative speakers, some of whom have been disinvited out of fear for their safety.

The Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel has sparked another wave of protests, which university administrators and free speech advocates say poses new challenges. In interviews, they described encountering students who were unwilling to engage with administrators when invited to do so, quick to use aggressive and sometimes physical forms of expression, and often wore masks to conceal their identities.

  • Now that you’ve looked at images and read more about these protests, what are your reactions to the student demonstrations and schools’ attempts to clamp down on them?

  • Have there been protests or demonstrations at your school about the Israel-Hamas war or any other issues? If so, how did your administration respond? Do you think it handled the situation well? What, if anything, do you think your school should have done differently?

  • According to the article, some students, faculty and civil liberties groups say that “a university’s role is to foster debate — even if it’s messy, rude and disruptive — not attempt to smother it.” To what extent do you agree with that point of view? Why?

  • When, if ever, do you think a school or university should step in to manage or stop student protests, demonstrations or debates? For example, according to the article, college officials have said that some of the protests have left many students, particularly Jewish ones, fearing for their safety. And the federal government has opened discrimination investigations into half a dozen universities following complaints about antisemitic and anti-Muslim harassment. Where is the line between protecting students’ right to freedom of expression and ensuring their safety and ability to get an education?

  • Do you think suspensions, expulsions and arrests are an appropriate response from schools given the tenor of some of these protests? If you were a decision maker at one of these universities, what would you be weighing to decide how to respond?

  • Colleges, universities and schools have long been sites of protest and activism, over causes including the Vietnam War and, in recent years, gun violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. Why do you think that is? What role do young people have to play in political issues like these?

  • What would you want your teachers, school administrators, parents or other adults to know about what it’s like to be a student during this conflict and navigating the fraught emotions and passionate protests it has brought on?