Can US universities ‘heal’ after campus clashes over Gaza?

Former Berkeley chancellor says sanctions on protest ringleaders must be seen to be just, although decisions may now be outside universities’ control

五月 6, 2024
New York Police Department officers detain dozens of pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University after they barricaded themselves at the Hamilton Hall building near Gaza Solidarity Encampment earlier in New York, United States on April 30, 2024
Source: Selcuk Acar/Anadolu/Getty Images

The perceived fairness of punishments handed to student protest leaders will be crucial for whether US universities can heal after police were invited to break up pro-Palestine sit-ins, according to a former college president.

Many staff and students have condemned leaders’ decisions to invite officers on to campus, notably at Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles. In a Substack post, Columbia history professor Adam Tooze warned that many would “struggle to unsee and unfeel” the “violence [that] came from the police side…at the invitation and request of the university administration”.

Nicholas Dirks, former chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley, who was previously a dean at Columbia, said management had been in a no-win situation because “they are either too lenient, for those who complain about, say, antisemitism, or they are far too draconian, in not defending both academic freedom and freedom of speech”.

However, calling the police “raises the volume” of such complaints, he said. “Such calls invariably lead to arrests that go beyond university codes for conduct and modes of adjudicating violations of them and frequently involve violent altercations,” said Professor Dirks. “These interactions are now all recorded and circulated on video clips, so they become discursive tools to disseminate arguments about police violence, and, by implication, further evidence of the ill intent of administrators.”

“When student bystanders and faculty…are [also] arrested, it is as if the chasm [between management and faculty] becomes an active fault line, leading to repercussions that go well beyond the moment,” he added, noting the apparently “unnecessary and, in one case, violent” arrests of staff at Emory University.

“The healing process will include whether students regard the punishments as fair and, ultimately, whether decisions about students are made with that fact top of mind – namely that these young people are our students and we have a larger responsibility for their welfare, which includes protection around protest,” Professor Dirks added.

David Smith, an associate professor at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, said that some universities had shown how protests could be dispersed peacefully. For instance, the governing body of Brown University had shown a way through the conflict by committing to a vote on divestment from Israel if students disbanded their camp.

“There’s a long historical experience with protest that when you violently suppress it, you don’t make it go away – if anything, you encourage it,” he said.

Dr Smith said some administrators’ determination not “to be seen to be giving in to student demands” seemed to trump their unwillingness to be associated with violent suppression – a stance many may come to regret, particularly at Columbia.

“One of the lessons from this is [that] if you commit to a tough response early on…you can’t be seen to be backing down from it. If you have a more conciliatory approach from the beginning, then you potentially leave yourself room later on to get tough if negotiations don’t go anywhere.

“Columbia is in the situation where quite early on it committed to this very tough response. They then attempted to negotiate…but still on very constricted terms. That didn’t put the protesters in a particularly conciliatory mood.”


Print headline: Can campuses heal Gaza rifts?



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Reader's comments (1)

I anticipate state governments outlawing BDS by state and private universities to place these administrations in an even more difficult situation. It's acceptable to boycott and sanction Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba, but never to condemn the actions of the Israeli government and its supporters.