You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Pro-Palestine protester at Harvard stands in front of man holding Israeli flag

A pro-Palestinian protest by Harvard students and their supporters ends on the lawn behind Klarman Hall, at Harvard Business School, after starting in the Old Yard by Massachusetts Hall.

Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Still roiled by controversy over its handling of campus protests related to the Israel-Hamas war, Harvard University wants faculty to plan for how they’ll address possible classroom disruptions this semester.

“Students on other campuses have started the semester with walkouts,” Amanda Claybaugh, dean of undergraduate education, wrote in an email to faculty Sunday, the day before classes started for the spring semester. “I’d encourage you to think about how you’d respond should a protest occur in your course.”

The email was part of larger guidance on tempering classroom disruptions. It was met with mixed reactions from faculty, which is unsurprising, given the harsh public spotlight Harvard has been in since the start of the war and students’ complaints about antisemitism on campus, which partly led to the resignation of the university’s president, Claudine Gay, earlier this month.

Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard and co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom, said he welcomes the university’s guidance on classroom disruptions and doesn’t consider it an infringement on free speech.

“We’re supposed to be a place where ideas are incubated, debated and discovered, where students learn to think and learn how to get along with their fellow citizens,” he said. “If the public image of the university is whoever has the loudest bullhorn or whoever can force their way into a room gets the floor, then it undermines the whole rationale for why a university is a special institution.”

Walter Johnson, a professor of history and African American studies, wasn’t reassured by the university’s suggestion to involve police in the event of a classroom disruption.

“The most disturbing aspect of the restatement of the university’s policy was and is the administration’s apparent insistence on partnering with the armed officers of the Harvard University Police Department in overseeing what are, after all, exceedingly rare … breaches of classroom decorum,” he said in an email.

Student activists have long deployed walkouts and other on-campus disruptions to voice their concerns about a wide range of issues, including wars, civil rights and institutional leadership.

About 200 students at Yale University started the spring semester last week with a “There Is No Back to School in Gaza” walkout, calling for an end to Yale’s “violent complicity in Israel’s occupation and genocide of Palestinians,” according to an Instagram post by Yalies4Palestine, which helped organize the demonstration. Earlier this week in Ohio, about 50 students, faculty and alumni at Youngstown State University walked out of class to protest the university’s new president, Bill Johnson, a former Republican congressman who has questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election. And hundreds of West Virginia University students made national headlines when they walked out of class last August to protest massive layoffs and program cuts at the university.

But the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October has unleashed a national wave of intensified campus activism driven by deep divisions over support for Israel or Palestine. Related walkouts, rallies and sit-ins have become regular occurrences on campuses across the country over the past several months. It’s put many administrators in the precarious position of trying to differentiate free speech from hate speech and ensuring their campuses are safe learning environments.

Harvard has received some of the sharpest criticisms of its ability to do that.

Controversy at Harvard

Last fall, protesters at Harvard disrupted lectures, loudly marched through campus while classes were in session and, in at least one case, clashed with a student. One of those disruptions was caught on video. It shows a protester standing in the back of a lecture hall, using a bullhorn to tell students to “Stand up right now. Spare 15 minutes of this class for the 15,000 lives that have been innocently slaughtered in Gaza,” before chanting, “Free, free Palestine!”

On Dec. 3, two days before Gay, Harvard’s now former president, testified at a congressional hearing about the university’s response to antisemitism on campus, Bill Ackman, a billionaire Harvard alumnus and donor, posted the video on X with the caption, “This is what you get for $73,600/year at Harvard.”

Tensions over the war have remained high on college campuses so far this semester, and especially at Harvard, which is under congressional investigation, along with the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for their responses to antisemitism on campus. And earlier this month, a group of Jewish students filed a lawsuit against Harvard, calling it “a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment,” according to the Associated Press.

‘Content-Neutral’ Guidance

Within that context, Harvard’s administration started off the new semester by forming task forces on combating antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus. It also reminded faculty how to handle any future classroom disruptions.

“To be clear, students are not permitted to disrupt classes, nor are instructors and TFs permitted to cancel classes for political reasons. If a disruption occurs in your course, we defer to your judgment for how best to handle it,” Claybaugh, dean of undergraduate education, said in her Sunday email to faculty. “Finally, we trust that your determinations will be content-neutral; treating one cause differently from another might be discriminatory.”

Claybaugh linked to a list of “practical steps to follow” in case of a classroom disruption, which include:

  • Staying calm and trying to continue to teach;
  • Moving to a different location or canceling class if a disruption doesn’t de-escalate;
  • Choosing to mark absent students who stage a walkout;
  • Calling the Harvard University Police Department for advice ahead of time or if concerns about physical safety arise.

Those suggestions are a reiteration of guidelines created by a working group last year, Jonathan Palumbo, a Harvard spokesperson, said in an email. The group was charged with developing faculty training on managing classroom disruptions following an incident in 2022—a year before the Israel-Hamas war—in which protesters disrupted a class taught by a professor who sat on the board of Raytheon, a weapons-manufacturing company.

Prior to the start of classes this week, Harvard held classroom-management training sessions for faculty that “summarized long-standing policies on rights and responsibility and guidelines on free speech and offered example best practices,” according to Palumbo.

Pinker, the psychology professor who supports the guidance, said he hasn’t experienced any disruptions in his classes, and he doesn’t plan on pre-emptively addressing the guidelines with his students because “it would be needlessly provocative and prejudicial and warn against something that almost certainly won’t happen.”

Nonetheless, he said he has campus police on speed dial and the university’s guidelines on a PowerPoint slide ready to show students if any disruptions occur.

“I’m not on edge. I don’t expect it to happen,” Pinker said. “But I’ve taken preparations because I think it’s more likely to happen this year than in previous years.”

Laura Beltz, director of policy reform for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said, “It’s useful for schools right now to outline for their students and faculty what is lawful and unlawful protest.” But she said institutions also need to be careful “they’re not being chilling of lawful expressive activity.”

She said Harvard’s guidance that faculty develop content-neutral plans to de-escalate disruptions will help toe that line.

“People are seeing on campuses—at Harvard and across the country—that there are double standards and [policies] aren’t being enforced consistently,” she said. “Whenever you have these sorts of guidelines, you have to actually follow through with them.”

Beltz also said it’s “reasonable” for Harvard to provide HUPD’s contact information in case a disruption escalates to the point of threats or violence. “At the same time, you want to make sure the schools aren’t suggesting to faculty and students that any time they don’t like the content of speech that they call the police.”

Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin who previously directed Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center, said he “can’t imagine” an instance of a politically motivated classroom disruption that would require police intervention.

“If students walk out, that’s fine. They have a complete right to disagree with me. I’m not going to call the police to make them come back,” said Mintz, who writes Inside Higher Ed’s “Higher Ed Gamma” blog. If a professor’s first instinct after a disruption is to call the police, it demonstrates “a lack of confidence in their ability to handle a situation” and a lack of trust and rapport with students, he said.

If disruptions are by people not enrolled in his class, however, Mintz said he would expect the institution to intervene accordingly.

“My class is my highest priority, and outsiders have no right to disrupt it. To the best of my ability, I will continue to teach in the face of those disruptions,” he said. “But if the disruption is inside the classroom, then I need to handle it.”

From his perspective, the ability to manage those disruptions comes as a result of keeping an open dialogue with students.

“I talk to my students about the history of protests and activism,” Mintz said. “I want them to understand the past. I also want them to understand that if they’re going to disrupt a class, they should be prepared for the consequences, and therefore should only do this in circumstance that are, in their view, super important.”

‘The Real Threat’?

Johnson, the Harvard history professor concerned about the university’s advice to call the police in some cases of classroom disruption, is more concerned about the rash of “abusive phone calls made by the army of trolls whipped up by the university’s most prominent and voluble critics” that some faculty and staff have received in the wake of Harvard’s recent months of controversy.

“That seems to me to be the real threat at Harvard at the moment,” Johnson said. “Not the hypothetical actions of protesting students.”

Next Story

Written By

Found In

More from Teaching