College Campus Protests Align with Core Values and Mission

A group of protesters march on the street

“Campus Thuggery Is No Way to Foster Citizens.” Bravo! We completely concur with this assertion from Rick Hess in a recent Education Next blog post. It was surprising to see Hess categorize an essay we penned in the Chronicle of Higher Education as a “defense” of “campus disorder.” In our piece—in reaction to an earlier Hess article—what we actually supported was the students’ right to engage in peaceful demonstrations. We also asserted that equipping students with valuable citizenship skills through political activism has been a core tenet of higher education for over a century.

Hess labels us as “chaos apologists” who “seem oddly unconcerned about the educational value.” This misconception overlooks a critical point in our essay: There is no universal framework for campus speech. Different rules and norms apply to different campus settings.

As faculty members at a small liberal arts college, our dedication to education runs deep. The classroom is the focal point of campus activity, dedicated to imparting knowledge and fostering critical thinking abilities. Therefore, disruptive behavior, personal attacks, and political slogans have no place in the classroom. Civil discourse prevails, governed by the principles of academic freedom where expertise, evidence, and logic should supersede emotions and grandstanding.

The campus quad is more akin to a public forum than a lecture hall. (It truly is a public space at public universities governed by the First Amendment.) A broader spectrum of speech must be tolerated on the campus grounds than within the classroom. Some expressions may be misinformed, impassioned, or offensive, especially during student protests. Taking a public stance on contentious issues such as Israel-Palestine is bound to stir controversy and ruffle feathers. However, if institutions are truly committed to open expression, college leaders must accept this as a cost. As outlined in the Chicago Principles statement, “concerns about civility and mutual respect should not justify suppressing discussion of ideas, no matter how offensive or disagreeable they may be to some members of our community.”

Hess struggles to envision how protesting students can raise awareness for their cause while adhering to basic guidelines. He appears to believe that allowing passion and provocation leads inevitably to chaos, disorder, and authoritarianism. His portrayal of the Gaza protest movement is biased and relentlessly gloomy. “As seen today,” Hess notes, “campus protests are more about theatrics than deliberation. They focus on spectacle rather than reflection. They seem designed to impede reasoned dialogue and intellectual inquiry, making them ill-suited for institutions of higher learning.”

[T]hey’re histrionic affairs rather than considered ones. They’re about spectacle rather than contemplation. Indeed, they seem calculated to stymie reasoned discourse and serious inquiry, which makes them rather a poor fit for serious institutions of higher education.

“Historically,” Hess concludes, “learning to be a part of a masked, faceless mob has been a recipe not for cultivating democrats but for producing jack-booted thugs.”

Have there been instances of teenage theatrics at certain student protests? Undoubtedly. After all, protesters are college students. Have there been reprehensible, antisemitic outbursts? Yes, and they must be addressed and publicly condemned. What about property damage and other instances of property destruction? In a few cases, yes, and those responsible should face consequences.

The overwhelming majority of protests have been peaceful. Any violence that did occur was mostly inflicted by law enforcement (as evidenced in incidents at UT Austin, Indiana University, City College of New York, Dartmouth, and numerous other institutions) and by counter-demonstrators (as seen at UCLA). The heavy-handed responses from college administrators have been disgraceful. Too many officials have hastily resorted to riot control measures instead of engaging in dialogue and negotiation.

Students have effectively voiced their concerns—through marches, protests, and encampments—without disrupting essential campus activities. In nearly all cases of pro-Palestinian demonstrations, dormitories, cafeterias, libraries, and academic buildings have continued normal operations. Classes proceeded unhindered, with students attending lectures, submitting assignments, and taking exams. On May 23, hundreds of students staged a walkout during Harvard’s commencement. They expressed their views peacefully, waving Palestinian flags, and left after a brief demonstration. No disruptions or protests marred the ceremony.

Recently, students on our campus established an encampment near the college chapel lawn. While attracting attention, it has not impeded the institution’s daily functions. One of us (Amna) has visited the encampment with her young children and experienced its peaceful, inclusive atmosphere. Alongside the tents and signs, there is a small library with resources on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Students organized educational sessions and engaged in respectful conversations with critics both inside and outside the college. They have not only deepened their understanding of the Middle East but also gained insights into higher education, from trustees’ roles to endowment management. Armed with knowledge acquired through navigating institutional structures, they aspire to effect positive change. Regardless of one’s political stance, students are honing vital citizenship skills crucial for democratic life.

Hess seems to assert that student protests run counter to the educational objectives of colleges and universities. However, this viewpoint overlooks the distinct purposes of classrooms and campus quads governed by different standards. Classrooms are centers of learning and intellectual pursuit where civil discourse and evidence-based arguments take precedence. These spaces are paramount on campuses and should safeguard their fundamental integrity. In contrast, campus greens are public forums where speech is not as constrained. Here, students learn to engage in public discourse, which, for better or worse, can be contentious and challenging.

Citizenship in the United States encompasses a diversity of skills suited to various contexts. Political activism is just one facet. There are times for listening, dialogue, and thoughtful debate. There are also moments when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for “direct action” such as marches and sit-ins becomes imperative.

As long as protesters do not disrupt classroom instruction or hinder their peers’ learning directly, their actions fall within the realm of exercising their civic rights. To uphold their dual mission of nurturing thinkers and citizens, colleges and universities must preserve space for peaceful political engagement on campus. As legal scholars John Inazu and Bert Neuborne have highlighted, “the freedom to assemble peaceably remains integral to what Justice Robert Jackson once called ‘the right to differ.’” Higher education institutions, where dissent and discussion are essential, should be bastions of protecting divergent views.

Amna Khalid is an associate professor of history at Carleton College. Jeffrey Aaron Snyder is an associate professor in the department of educational studies at Carleton College.

The post Campus Protests Don’t Undermine the College Mission appeared first on Education Next.

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