Pro-Palestinian college protests spark debate about potential impact

During a special episode (initially published on May 8, 2024) of The Excerpt podcast: Demonstrations in support of Palestinians that commenced at Columbia University have triggered a cascade of similar protests at higher education institutions nationwide. The momentum behind these protests appears to be growing after several weeks. A significant number of individuals have been taken into custody in connection with these protests. The demands put forth by students differ depending on the campus, but a common theme revolves around seeking an end to the Israel-Hamas conflict and the disinvestment from entities profiting financially from this conflict. Previous eras have witnessed student activism play a crucial role in shaping societal and political landscapes, including movements related to the Vietnam War, civil rights, and South Africa’s apartheid. To provide context about the ongoing protests, Robert Cohen, a professor specializing in social studies education at New York University and an expert in student activism, joins The Excerpt.

Press play on the embedded player below to listen to the podcast and access the accompanying transcript. This transcript was automatically generated and subsequently revised for enhanced clarity. Discrepancies between the audio content and text may exist.

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Dana Taylor:

Greetings and welcome to The Excerpt. I am Dana Taylor. Today is Wednesday, May 8, 2024, marking a special installment of The Excerpt. The wave of pro-Palestinian demonstrations originating from Columbia University has caused a ripple effect leading to similar protests erupting on campuses nationwide. The intensity of these protests seems to be on the rise several weeks into the movement. A considerable number of individuals have been apprehended. While the specific demands of students vary by location, the prevalent call is for a resolution to the Israel-Hamas conflict and the cessation of financial support to businesses profiting from this conflict. Past instances of student-driven social movements, such as those during the Vietnam War, civil rights era, and South Africa’s apartheid period, have demonstrated the potential for catalyzing significant societal and political shifts. Could the current student-led campaign be approaching a decisive moment? To gain insights into the ongoing demonstrations, Robert Cohen, an accomplished professor in social studies education at New York University with expertise in student activism, engages in a discussion on The Excerpt.

Robert Cohen:

It’s a pleasure to be here.

Dana Taylor:

Let’s delve into the complexities of this swiftly evolving situation. Where do you perceive signs that this student-led movement might lead to enduring change, or has the tipping point been reached already?

Robert Cohen:

Elevated awareness about the conflict and American support for Israeli military actions has been a significant outcome of this movement. This heightened consciousness holds potential for impactful change. The students’ call for university divestment, on the other hand, faces greater challenges due to the prevalent support for Israel across the United States. Legal restrictions in over 30 states prohibiting state agencies from engaging with companies associated with the BDS divestment movement present hurdles. Only a handful of universities nationwide have embraced divestment. Comparing this demand with the anti-apartheid divestment movement in the 1980s underscores the formidable obstacles. Analogous to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, which lacked a specific agenda and failed to achieve defined goals, the present movement may influence dialogues surrounding economic disparities.

Dana Taylor:

What key indicators do you look for in a student-led movement to discern its capacity to effect real change?

Robert Cohen:

An essential factor is the level of discourse generated by the movement. The realization of specific local demands and demonstrable impact on university policies are pivotal elements. For instance, the Free Speech Movement in 1964 at UC Berkeley successfully advocated for the elimination of constraints on student free speech rights after a protracted struggle. Such tangible victories are exceptions in student movements as achieving demands is rare. Student-led movements often serve to draw attention to societal issues, akin to the anti-war protests during the Vietnam era that shifted public sentiment against the war. Despite facing societal opposition due to underlying conservative norms, these movements contribute to shaping public discourse and political awareness.

Dana Taylor:

Numerous universities have negotiated agreements with protest leaders, including Brown and Northwestern. What cultural aspects on these campuses facilitate constructive dialogues?

Robert Cohen:

Norms on college campuses frequently marginalize students’ participation in institutional decision-making processes, rendering students disempowered and estranged from governance structures. Unlike the electoral system where citizens can hold elected officials accountable, students lack substantive involvement in university investment policies. Initiating inclusive governance mechanisms presenting opportunities for student engagement could avert prolonged protests. Remarkably, Brown and Northwestern exemplify exceptional institutional inclusivity that assuaged protests through student integration in decision-making, underscoring the efficacy of participatory approaches in addressing dissent.

Dana Taylor:

The debate around free speech versus hate speech has ignited fervent discourse during these protests, with Jewish participants supporting the pro-Palestinian stance while counter protests at campuses like UCLA featured pro-Israel sentiments, occasionally leading to violent clashes. How do you contextualize the campus culture emphasizing vigorous defense of free speech?

Robert Cohen:

University environments are designed to foster open dialogue and confront challenging ideas. Upholding diverse viewpoints, regardless of popularity, remains vital to actualizing the university’s role as a crucible for unearthing truths. Permitting a wide range of perspectives aids in scrutinizing prevailing narratives, such as the dissent against the prevailing pro-war sentiments during the Vietnam era. The vociferous advocacy for free speech on campuses is instrumental in fostering an intellectually robust environment by accommodating conflicting viewpoints and fostering nuanced debates.

Dana Taylor:

University responses to protests and encampments demonstrate varied approaches, from arrests to suspensions to the deployment of riot control measures like tear gas, often exacerbating tensions. Historically, where have institutions drawn the line between peaceful protesting and actions jeopardizing safety?

Robert Cohen:

In determining acceptable grounds for protesting, universities often reference the principles of “time, place, and manner.” Safeguarding free speech is paramount, yet activities that impede the educational mission of the institution, such as obstructing classrooms or seizing university buildings, violate these parameters. The severity of responses, like the 1968 takeover of Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall, underscores the blurred boundaries between permissible dissent and disruptive acts. Recent shifts towards curbing dissent suggest a restrictive trend, diverging from past practices tolerant of student activism.

Dana Taylor:

Faculty and administrators at Columbia and various campuses have openly supported protesters, physically intervening to shield encampments from police action. How has historical support from academic institutions for student protests evolved?

Robert Cohen:

Historically, faculty and administrators siding with student protests, as seen during Columbia’s 1968 anti-war demonstrations, underscore academia’s resonance with social movements. While well-intentioned, these protective stances often yield limited tangible outcomes due to police intervention overriding campus solidarity. The anecdote from the University of Wisconsin’s protest against Dow Chemical elucidates the constraints of faculty interventions in quelling student unrest, highlighting the faculty’s constrained capacity to prevent arrests or quell confrontations. University support represents a symbolic gesture of academic solidarity with student grievances; however, substantial policy shifts demand broader institutional transformations beyond mere gestures.

Dana Taylor:

The contentious issue of protest funding has sparked debates, with concerns raised about non-student disruptors co-opting movements. How has external funding influenced past protest movements?

Robert Cohen:

Accusations regarding protest funding often serve as distractions from genuine student grievances, with external funding largely irrelevant to students motivated by personal convictions. While external contributions can occur, mobilizing protests typically requires minimal resources beyond personal commitment. Historical red herrings, like the “Moscow Gold” allegations implicating communist aid in 1960s protests, have since been debunked. Dismissing baseless claims of external funding, such as the unfounded Soros-related insinuations, safeguards against undermining the legitimacy of students’ grassroots mobilizations.

Dana Taylor:

Some administrators contend non-student outside forces may exacerbate protests, diverting movements from their intended objectives. How have historical campus protests dealt with external agitators?

Robert Cohen:

Resisting the impulse to attribute dissent to remote instigators is imperative in preserving the autonomy of grassroots movements. The presence of non-campus individuals in protests stems from broader societal concerns, welcoming public involvement in vital discussions transcending campus boundaries. Fostering inclusive discourse necessitates recognizing diverse perspectives and refraining from casting unwarranted aspersions on external participants. While external influences exist to varying extents, prioritizing students’ agency bolsters the authenticity and autonomy of their protests.

Dana Taylor:

Is there any additional insight or aspect you’d like to share before we conclude?

Robert Cohen:

Evaluating the reception of student-led movements reveals enduring societal resistance to dissent instigated by young voices. The prevalent conservative ethos often distances public opinion from student activism, constraining the dialogue surrounding fundamental issues. By appreciating the nuanced motivations underpinning student protests, observers can transcend stereotypical characterizations. Despite imperfections in the present movement, the underlying essence of advocating peace and denouncing violence epitomizes the broader theme permeating student activism. Engaging with protests, albeit flawed, promotes dialogue on contentious issues, supplanting apathy with an edifying discourse.

Dana Taylor:

Thank you for participating in The Excerpt, Robert.

Robert Cohen:

My pleasure.

Dana Taylor:

Special acknowledgments to our senior producers, Shannon Rae Green and Bradley Glanzrock, for their invaluable contributions to this production. Laura Beatty serves as our executive producer. Share your feedback on this episode via podcast@usatoday.com. Thank you for tuning in. I’m Dana Taylor, and Taylor Wolfson will return with the next installment of The Excerpt tomorrow morning.

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