Universities caution student protesters: That’s enough

The University of Michigan’s annual honors convocation, which has been a tradition for over 100 years, is usually a dignified event. Attendees are greeted with the melodic sounds of a pipe organ, and the applause that follows is polite and reserved, resembling a golf clap.

As hundreds of disappointed students and their parents stood up and walked out, the university officials had no choice but to cut short the ceremony.

Just two days after the honors convocation, Santa J. Ono, the university’s president, issued a stern rebuke, stating that it was time for a change.

He expressed his pride in the university’s long-standing tradition of protest but acknowledged that the events on Sunday were not something to be proud of. In response, he revealed plans to create a new policy that would redefine what constitutes disruptive behavior and can be subject to punishment.

The University of Michigan is not the only institution facing this challenge.

In recent times, prominent academic institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, and Brown University have started taking more assertive measures by suspending and, in certain cases, expelling students. This marks a departure from their previous lenience in enforcing their own rules. For instance, these universities have acted swiftly and decisively by even resorting to arrests in response to student protests.

On Thursday, student protesters at Columbia University were confronted by the New York Police Department after setting up numerous tents on campus. This action came in response to the clear message delivered by the university’s president, Nemat Shafik, during her congressional testimony the day before. Shafik emphasized that the institution would not tolerate any form of misconduct from its students.

College officials are motivated by criticism from alumni, donors, and Republican lawmakers. However, in interviews, they also expressed a deep concern that civility on campus has deteriorated.

Lately, student protests have become so disruptive that they are not only interfering with the ability to provide education but also leaving many students, especially those of Jewish descent, concerned about their safety.

Recalibrating is not always a simple task, as numerous universities are discovering. Students, faculty, and civil liberties groups are pushing back against administrators’ efforts to regain control over campus protests. They argue that a university’s purpose is to encourage debate, even if it gets messy, impolite, and disruptive, rather than trying to suppress it.

According to campus activists, the recent increase in the enforcement of student disciplinary processes by universities is a cause for concern. Rosy Fitzgerald from the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a nonprofit organization that monitors how schools handle student demonstrators, describes this development as an escalation.

According to the expert, suspensions and expulsions were not typically used as a strategy in the past. However, there has been a shift in recent times, where they are now seen as an immediate response to certain situations.

During her congressional testimony, Shafik disclosed that Columbia University has suspended 15 students in the past few weeks. Additionally, she mentioned that the university, for the first time in half a century, sought assistance from the NYPD in managing the protests.

Vanderbilt University made headlines when it took disciplinary action against students involved in protests related to the Israel-Hamas war. In a groundbreaking move, the university expelled three students and suspended others after a group of over two dozen demonstrators stormed the office of the university president. The protest, which lasted for more than 20 hours, resulted in a security guard being injured and a window being shattered. This marks the first time that student expulsions have occurred in response to protests at Vanderbilt University.

Student protests throughout history have often been characterized by disruption and occasional violence, from the Vietnam War era to the present day. In recent years, following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, college campuses have experienced heightened volatility, witnessing a surge in heated demonstrations surrounding conservative speakers. In some cases, these speakers have been disinvited due to concerns about potential safety risks.

The recent Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 has given rise to a fresh wave of protests, presenting university administrators and free-speech advocates with new hurdles. In their discussions, they have come across students who are hesitant to participate in dialogues with administrators, opting for aggressive and occasionally physical modes of expression. Additionally, these students often conceal their identities by wearing masks.

“When I engage in conversations with other university presidents, it becomes apparent that we all share a common experience,” remarked Daniel Diermeier, chancellor of Vanderbilt. According to him, this experience often entails facing confrontations with a small but determined group of students, numbering around several dozen, who are unwavering in their stance.”

“They have no interest in engaging in dialogue. Whenever they are invited to have a conversation, they decline to participate,” Diermeier expressed. “Their main focus is on protesting and causing disruptions.”

He added, “That’s different.”

Seven students at Pomona College in Southern California were suspended recently for forcefully entering the president’s office to protest against the removal of an “apartheid wall” in solidarity with Palestinians.

However, colleges face a delicate balancing act as they navigate how to address the protests without overstepping boundaries.

According to Nossel, schools face a delicate balance between enforcing rules and recognizing that college is a place for learning. She highlights the importance of allowing students to make mistakes without facing severe consequences. Nossel emphasizes that being too strict can deepen feelings of grievance among students.

Students who have faced strict disciplinary actions have expressed their feelings of disorientation and surprise about the whole process. For instance, at Vanderbilt University, the suspended students were not allowed to remain on campus or stay in their dorm rooms. Ezri Tyler, a sophomore majoring in gender studies, was one of the participants in the sit-in at the president’s office and shared this information.

According to Tyler, the students at the school were in a state of panic and confusion. She expressed her belief that the school’s procedures were intentionally designed to deny students their right to due process. Tyler also mentioned that her suspension has been lifted, but she is currently on probation for a period of 15 months.

According to Diermeier, the school had to establish boundaries. He emphasized that the issue at hand is not about free speech, as some may argue. Diermeier stated that no one has the right to engage in harassment.

Colleges and universities are facing opposition from students, faculty, and civil liberties groups as they adopt a stricter approach, which is seen as stifling the expressive freedom that academia claims to value.

The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns about Michigan’s draft policy on disruptive conduct. According to them, the policy is criticized for being too vague and broad, as it prohibits activities such as impeding foot traffic on campus and interrupting lectures or performances.

According to Dan Korobkin, legal director of ACLU Michigan, universities have a valid reason to prevent significant disruptions that completely halt official events or hinder speakers from effectively conveying their message.

“But,” he emphasized, “they cannot expect every individual who steps onto campus to be completely passive.”

According to Colleen Mastony, a spokesperson from the University of Michigan, the intention behind the draft disruptive activity policy was to enhance clarity and provide well-defined terms.

In a recent letter to students and faculty, President Ono assured that the university values everyone’s opinion and will not hurry the development of the new policy. He emphasized the importance of giving all voices an opportunity to be heard, indicating that feedback on the draft has been actively sought by the university.

At Vanderbilt, Diermeier has implemented an initiative called the Future of Free Speech, with the aim of advocating for free expression beyond college campuses. Jacob Mchangama, who leads the program, shared in an interview that he had voiced his concerns to Diermeier regarding the handling of the student occupation of the president’s office. This included the arrest of a reporter from a local publication who was covering the event.

According to Mchangama, educators must respond to the willingness of certain students to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior. He believes that it is the responsibility of professors to establish clear boundaries and communicate them to students. Mchangama sees this as a widespread problem in universities across the country.

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