Campus Protests Don’t Undermine the College Mission

Public civil discourse should be encouraged at universities, but context matters

Photo of a young woman demonstrating at a protest

“Campus Thuggery Is No Way to Cultivate Citizens.” Hear, hear! We couldn’t agree more with this statement from Rick Hess in a recent Education Next blog post. So we were surprised to see Hess describe an essay we wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education as a “defense” of “campus disorder.” In our essay—written in part in response to a prior Hess piece—what we actually defended was the right of students to participate in peaceful protests. We also argued that preparing students to be engaged citizens has been central to the mission of higher education for more than a century, and that political activism can help students develop important citizenship skills.

Hess describes us as “chaos apologists” who “appear oddly indifferent to the value of what happens in their classrooms.” This is a case of mistaken identity, a misapprehension that fails to take into account one of our essay’s most consequential points: There is no single, unifying set of rules for campus speech. Different regulations and norms apply in different campus contexts.

As professors at a small liberal arts college, we are deeply committed to teaching. The classroom is the nerve center of campus life. It’s a space devoted to the dissemination of knowledge and the development of critical thinking skills. As such, shouting, personal attacks and political sloganeering have no place in the classroom. Civil discourse is the name of the game. And the game is governed by the rules of academic freedom where expertise, evidence, and reason should prevail over gut feelings and grandstanding.

The quad, however, is more akin to a public square than to a seminar room. (It really is a public square at public universities where the First Amendment pertains.) We must tolerate a much wider range of speech on the campus green than in the classroom. Some of it will be misinformed, intemperate, or offensive, especially when it comes to student protests. It isn’t possible to stake out a public position on highly contentious issues such as Israel-Palestine without causing a stir and ticking people off. But that’s a price college leaders must be willing to pay if they are genuinely committed to free expression. As the Chicago Principles explain, “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

Hess has a hard time imagining how protesting students can draw attention to their cause while also following basic ground rules. He seems to believe that allowing room for passion and provocation inexorably leads to chaos, disorder, and illiberalism. His characterization of the Gaza protest movement is one-sided and unrelentingly bleak. “As practiced today,” Hess writes, “campus protests feature a lot of appetite, id, and ego.” He goes on:

[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 we seen adolescent histrionics at some of the student protests? Yes. Protesters are college students after all. Have there been deplorable, antisemitic outbursts? Yes. And they should be taken seriously and publicly condemned. What about broken windows and other property damage? In a handful of cases, yes. And the perpetrators should be punished, accordingly.

But the vast majority of demonstrations have been peaceful. To the extent that protests have been marred by violence, almost all of it has been inflicted by police (as was the case at UT Austin, Indiana University, City College of New York, Dartmouth, and many other schools) and by counter-protesters (as was the case at UCLA). The heavy-handed responses on the part of college leaders have been shameful. Too many administrators have been too quick to abandon dialogue and negotiation in favor of riot police, pepper spray, rubber bullets and zip ties.

Students can and have made their presence known—through marches, demonstrations, and encampments—without disrupting essential college operations. On almost all of the campuses where there have been pro-Palestinian protests, dorms, cafeterias, libraries, and academic buildings have remained open and accessible. Classrooms have not been overtaken by unruly mobs. Students have done all the usual academic things: attending classes, writing papers, and taking exams. On May 23, hundreds of students walked out of Harvard’s commencement. They chanted, waved Palestinian flags, expressed their views, and were gone after a matter of minutes. They didn’t shout anyone down or derail the ceremony.

A few weeks ago, students on our own campus set up an encampment on the lawn next to the college chapel. It has drawn attention but has not interfered with the daily work of the college. One of us (Amna) has visited the encampment several times with her young children and can attest to the peaceful, welcoming atmosphere. Along with the tents and the placards, there is a mini-library with books about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Students have organized teach-ins and engaged in respectful dialogue with critics from inside and outside the college. They have not only educated themselves about the Middle East but have also learned a great deal about higher education, from what trustees do to how endowments are managed. They are taking the knowledge from this crash course in navigating institutional bureaucracies to try and make a difference in the world. Whether you agree with their politics, students are practicing the kinds of citizenship skills that are essential to democratic life.

Hess appears to believe that student activism is incompatible with the academic mission of colleges and universities. But this position disregards the fact that classrooms and quads are distinctive spaces governed by different rules. Classrooms are sites of learning and inquiry where civil discourse and evidence-based argumentation take precedence. They hold pride of place on campuses, and their basic integrity should be fiercely protected. Campus greens, in contrast, are public spaces where speech is not subject to the same constraints. Here, students can learn how to join the civic arena, which for better or worse, is often fraught and contentious.

Citizenship in the United States is a big tent that requires lots of different skills in different contexts. Political protest is just one of its many aspects. There’s a time for listening, discussion and considered deliberation. There’s also a time when the “fierce urgency of now,” in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorable words, calls for “direct action” like marches and sit-ins.

As long as protesters are not targeting classroom instruction and directly hampering the learning of their peers, their actions are squarely within the realm of exercising their civic rights. If colleges and universities are to remain true to their dual mission of training thinkers and citizens, the space for non-violent political activism on campus must be protected. As legal scholars John Inazu and Bert Neuborne have noted, “the freedom to assemble peaceably remains integral to what Justice Robert Jackson once called ‘the right to differ.’” If there is one place where “the right to differ” should be protected, it’s institutions of higher education, where disagreement and debate ought to be the coin of the realm.

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.

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