Justice  /  Argument

What University Presidents Can Learn From Past Protests

Successes that came when presidents protected student protesters from outside meddling are worth remembering when students return to campus.

This year, around 2,000 students were arrested on college campuses at the behest of their own institutions’ leaders. And it was not one or two leaders. Presidents and chancellors approved arrests of student protesters at UCLA, Columbia University, Indiana University Bloomington, University of Texas at Austin, Pomona College, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Emory University, City University of New York, Yale University, and Washington University in St. Louis, among dozens of other campuses. At the University of Southern California, there were two police sweeps to remove students' Gaza solidarity encampments from campus. Arrests during some commencement ceremonies occurred at institutions whose leaders did not cancel graduation exercises altogether.

Campuses may be quieting as summer sessions have arrived. But these recent actions should concern all Americans. Many of the institutions that lead knowledge production are led by college presidents who, in what was at best a misguided attempt to address what they framed as concerns about campus safety, suppressed dissent. How can we trust these universities to solve politically hostile problems like climate change? Why believe that the education on those campuses will teach students how to consider different viewpoints? What are we teaching this generation of students?

In contrast, we might look at another period of student unrest: the 1960s. During that tumultuous era, student protesters were frequently confronted by police and the National Guard; many faced arrest and violence, with some even shot or killed. Images from the arrests at Columbia University in 1968 and of the National Guard and local and state police shootings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970 have recirculated in recent weeks, amid this year’s campus protest crackdowns.

But some presidents of that era actually engaged with students, even if begrudgingly, in extended dialogue to end demonstrations, and challenged politicians’ negative characterizations of student protests. Their approach was essential to academic freedom, stifling political interference, and modeling democracy.