Student Protests are Part of an Endless But Positive Tug of War

Photograph Source: عباد ديرانية – CC0

The recent presence of police on the campus of Columbia University to stop pro- Palestinian protesters is reminiscent of turbulence on the same campus in 1968. While the past and present issues of contestation at Columbia are different, the issues of free speech and student activism reflect an ongoing tension between students and universities in general. Student/administrators differences, sometimes violent, are nonetheless healthy and necessary parts of a democratic society.

The current issue between students and university administrators focuses on the Middle East crisis. Protesting students have taken up the cause of Palestinians against Israel. Over one hundred student protesters were recently arrested by New York City police on Columbia’s campus. “It’s like there’s been a military coup on campus,” a student was quoted in Le Monde. “There are cops everywhere,” she said. At Columbia, on-campus classes have been cancelled; students were urged to stay home. Police have also intervened at New York University and Yale.

The fact that Columbia’s president and other university officials have called in the police “to restore order on campus” shows the gap between the students’ actions and how the university seeks to govern. In a larger context, the current campus turmoil highlights the failure to incorporate student idealism into university policies.

Threats to security and order are superficial excuses for calling in the police. Student idealism is the problem. “Columbia’s move to send in police so quickly after these demonstrations began chills student expression, marks a significant departure from past practice, and raises questions about the university’s disparate treatment of students based on their views,” Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.

A similar statement by the Columbia and Barnard chapters of the American Association of University Professors condemned Columbia president Minouche Shafik’s crackdown on pro-Palestinian protests: “We are shocked at her failure to mount any defense of the free inquiry central to the educational mission of a university in a democratic society and at her willingness to appease legislators seeking to interfere in university affairs.”

Chilling student expression by university administrators is part of an endless tug of war between youthful idealism and the conservative forces of law and order. University presidents, as representatives of what they perceive to be larger responsibilities, weigh student demands with their perceptions of societal interests. And the students usually lose, particularly in the current situation of academic institutions resembling bureaucratic corporations.

As eminent academic free speech expert Professor Stephen Rosow observes: “University administrations seem to view the relation of the university as a seat of knowledge to the public sphere as one of mirroring public opinion rather than leading public discussion and debate.” “They are,” he adds, “beholden to the ideological forces that stand behind donors, but their vision of the university as necessary to a robust democracy is at best in retreat.”

Student activism is part of an endemic conflict between students and authority, including university administrators, government, and society. While the conflict may manifest itself violently from time to time, it is part of a normal process. Eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds should be idealistic. The tension between the protesters and the university administrators is more than the question of the limits of freedom of speech; it’s about the freedom to think, the freedom to question, the freedom to create, the freedom to act. The incapacity of universities to incorporate student activism into their regular activities is threatened when administrators call onto campus the forces of law and order. It is indeed chilling when a campus is seen as the site of a military coup.

It is also chilling when universities are given government warnings of what the forces of law and order may do. As proof of how chilling society can be, witness Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s aggressive questioning of three university presidents about antisemitism on their campuses before a House of Representatives subcommittee. Stefanik’s political posturing sent a clear message to universities, both private and public, that the government will oversee what is happening on campuses. Stefanik and people like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are attempting to thought-police higher education.

What happens on campus is thoroughly political in terms of the freedom given to students to express their opinions. In the classroom, questioning authority by critically examining iconic texts is naturally followed outside the classroom by students questioning campus authorities and beyond. Critical questioning is what higher education is all about.

But questioning does not necessarily lead to physical confrontation One of my fondest memories of college is the evening when Lyndon Johnson announced his steps to limit the bombing of North Vietnam and his decision not to seek re-election. I called the president of the college to say we should celebrate. (He was far from an anti-war radical.) He immediately invited me and a small group over to his residence where he opened his plentiful liquor cabinet, still in pyjamas, and discussions/celebrations began. Together.

If the latest Harvard Youth Poll shows that students in the 18-24 age range have different political opinions than those older, that is to be expected. University students are different from the general society. Some call students irresponsible; I prefer to call them idealistically positive, creative, and active. The reason to study at a university is to expand the mind and personal possibilities, not to limit one’s intellect and activities.

Creative thinking is messy. Questioning authority is inherently disruptive. Both can be found on campuses as part of a natural tension between students and administrators. If campuses become war zones, it is the result of the failure of administrators to engage with their constituents on the students’ terms. Unlike the endless wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, endless critical questioning of authority through political activism is the very foundation of a democratic society.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.