College protests can yield varied and lasting wins, according to experts.

The demonstrations at college campuses in late April and early May have started to dwindle in recent weeks. As the school year wraps up and summer break looms, some institutions’ officials have reached agreements with protesting students, while others have resorted to involving law enforcement to remove activists from campus.

Experts predict a decline in the unrest during the summer months, but anticipate a potential resurgence in the fall as the outcomes of the agreements become more apparent.

Harvard University recently reached a consensus with demonstrators to dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment that had been in place for weeks. As part of the agreement, the university pledged to revoke student suspensions and consider divesting from companies with Israeli affiliations.

Similarly, administrators at the University of California, Berkeley, negotiated the end of an encampment on campus. While the chancellor of Berkeley deferred the decision on divestment feasibility, she committed to investigating discrimination complaints related to study abroad programs and reviewing the school’s foundation’s investment approach.

Recent graduation ceremonies were marked by anti-war sentiments, exemplified by students walking out of Jerry Seinfeld’s commencement speech at Duke University. Seinfeld, a Jewish comedian, has been vocal about his support for Israel since the conflict with Hamas last fall.

How campus activism unfolds in the coming months hinges on international developments in the conflict and the ability of students to sustain their current momentum, experts noted.

Resurgence of ‘socially responsible investing’

Even if protests subside or intensify, remnants of unrest could integrate into the campus fabric permanently, observed Todd Ely, an associate professor at the University of Colorado, Denver. The concept of “socially responsible investing” has seen a revival, resonating with student activists pushing for ethical investment practices.

The scrutiny of investment strategies in higher education soared this year, with a focus on divesting from entities linked to weaponry manufacturers and the Israeli government. However, tracking university endowments, especially the largest ones managed by hedge funds, remains complex due to the opaqueness of their portfolios.

While colleges like Brown University have taken steps towards exploring divestment, the actual policy changes resulting from such actions remain uncertain.

Nonetheless, as Ely stated, the dialogue surrounding socially responsible investing has entered a new phase, setting the stage for potential shifts in universities’ asset deployment.

If negotiations crumble in the upcoming academic year, discord may reignite a fresh wave of activism on campuses.

Persistence of congressional hearings

A pivotal moment fueling recent campus activism was a congressional hearing addressing campus antisemitism in mid-April. Columbia University’s president faced questioning that culminated in mass arrests following the occupation of the New York City campus by pro-Palestinian students.

As summer break begins, Republican lawmakers continue pushing the agenda by scheduling another hearing on campus antisemitism, although the impact might differ from previous events, according to Kevin McClure, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

The political dynamics evolving from these hearings could be instrumental as per McClure’s assessment.

Consequences of concessions on protests

The lull during summer break might temper the fervor of campus protests, according to Lisa Mueller, an associate professor at Macalester College. However, the return of students in the fall and potential discussions with administrators on divestment could reignite activism.

Research hints that concessions to protesters could energize further demonstrations, a trend observed in authoritarian regimes. Generalizing this trend to democracies remains challenging, as Mueller cautioned, but the recent wave of protests could provoke additional disruptions on campuses.

Activists may view recent successes as inspiration for more protests in the future, potentially yielding additional aftershocks following the recent upheaval.


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