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A photo of a protestor being arrested at Emory University.

Violent arrests at Emory University and elsewhere have fueled criticism of presidential responses to pro-Palestinian protests that have spread across the U.S. in recent weeks.

Elijah Nouvelage/AFP via Getty Images

When Michigan State University students established an encampment to call for divestment from Israel over civilian casualties in Gaza, President Kevin Guskiewicz visited the site to speak with student activists about their concerns. In response to similar protests, presidents at Emory University, University of Texas at Austin, and elsewhere sent in the police, who arrested students and faculty.

The contrast in responses illustrates a sharp divide in how presidents are navigating the spillover from a conflict thousands of miles away that only tangentially touches their campuses. It also highlights how the war between Israel and Hamas has inflamed campus relations in the U.S., putting institutional leaders in the impossible position of trying to balance the competing aims of assorted students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees and donors.

As protest encampments have popped up at dozens of universities in recent days, administrators have struggled to respond to demands that their institutions divest endowment funds from businesses profiting off the war and/or that they end any academic or business partnerships with Israel, given the tens of thousands of civilians its military has killed in response to Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 attack.

While some colleges have allowed protests to continue—often with a police presence on hand—others have cracked down, sending in law enforcement to remove demonstrators, in some cases applying violent force. Some experts argue that the use of armed force exacerbated the situation, compelling more students to set up encampments on other campuses. For presidents suddenly stuck navigating an unforeseen and politically charged campus crisis, there is no easy answer.

Presidential Responses

The encampment protests started with Columbia University, where students set up tents on April 17, demanding divestment from companies profiting “from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine,” according to the social media pages for pro-Palestinian activists.

Students established the first encampment the same day that Columbia President Minouche Shafik testified in a Congressional hearing about antisemitism and free expression on the Columbia campus. While Shafik fared better than three of her presidential counterparts who took part in a similar hearing in December—two of whom soon lost their jobs—critics argued that she failed to stand up for academic freedom. With Shafik’s testimony still being hotly debated on and off campus, the president called in the NYPD to dismantle the encampment; more than 100 students were arrested.

The mass arrests didn't deter the protesters, who simply rebuilt the encampment in a different spot. And the crackdown at Columbia only seemed to energize other campuses across the U.S., as divestment protests with varying demands began to spread. 

“The thing that is extraordinary about this is the rapidity with which it has grown, and I think that is as much a reflection of the initial government and administrative response as it is the issue,” said Angus Johnston, a history professor at Hostos Community College who studies student activism. “Once Columbia cracked down, we saw an immediate and I think, predictable, outpouring of response on the part of students at other campuses and it snowballed from there.”

While the students’ specific demands vary, a consistent theme is that they want universities to divest endowment funds from companies profiting off the war between Israel and Hamas. At Washington University in St. Louis, for example, students have demanded divestment from Boeing, including that administrators end research partnerships with the aerospace giant and shut the company out of career events. 

Students made a similar demand at Portland State University, which officials have said does not have investments in Boeing—though it has accepted philanthropic gifts from the company. In a rare concession to student protesters, Portland State announced it would cut ties with Boeing. That appears to mean the loss of $28,000 in annual scholarship funds, local media reported.

At the University of Rochester, students have demanded the administration sever ties with Israeli institutions. In a statement last week, student protesters declared the university had “initiated the process of academic divestment.” Rochester officials, however, immediately denied the claims.

To be sure, meeting student demands—some of which are vague and impossible (such as on-campus calls for a cease fire)—can be difficult, as can engaging with newly formed leaderless groups that go beyond the traditional student organizations that presidents know.

“These are organic groups that are popping up to lead these protests. So you don’t have formalized leadership, which becomes a challenge, because you don’t know who the leader is and it can be hard to figure out who to have conversations with,” said Walter Kimbrough, president in residence at the Rutgers University Center for Minority Serving Institutions. “I think a lot of education has to be done; some of the demands don’t make sense because they don’t fully understand how the institution works.”

Despite the challenges, Kimbrough emphasized the importance of engaging with those students, whatever their group affiliation and however far-fetched their demands. That could include discussing the potential consequences of enacting their requested changes, such as whether a student is willing to pay more should costs rise due to excising a protested partner or vendor.

One concern that Kimbrough highlighted was the challenge of managing individuals unaffiliated with campus who join the encampments, which he said raised safety issues for universities. That issue has been at play in recent crackdowns, including at Emory, where President Gregory Fenves claimed protesters were “largely not affiliated with Emory.” However, 20 of 28 protesters arrested were directly linked to the community, including a professor who was violently detained.

Fenves reiterated the claim of outside agitators in a Friday statement.

“I am saddened by what took place at Emory yesterday,” he wrote. “To watch these highly organized, outside protesters arrive on campus in vans, construct an encampment, and overtake the Quad just days after it was vandalized with hateful and threatening messages was deeply disturbing. I also know that some of the videos are shocking, and I am horrified that members of our community had to experience and witness such interactions. The fact that members of our community were arrested upsets me even more and is something that I take very seriously.” 

At UT Austin, officials also pointed to individuals outside the university community.

“The protesters tried to deliver on their stated intent to occupy campus. People not affiliated with UT joined them, and many ignored University officials’ continual pleas for restraint and to immediately disperse,” President Jay Hartzell wrote in an email to campus. “The University did as we said we would do in the face of prohibited actions. We were prepared, with the necessary support to maintain campus operations and ensure the safety, well-being and learning environment for our more than 50,000 students.”

Officials also confirmed that 26 of the nearly 60 people arrested at UT Austin were not affiliated with the university. Criminal trespass charges were later dropped against 57 people.

Staff at both Emory and UT Austin refused to answer questions from Inside Higher Ed about whether presidents directly engaged with the protesters before deploying police against them, instead sending links to prior statements made by leaders in the aftermath of the arrests.

Presidential Backlash

Violent police responses to the demonstrations have led to mounting criticism at some institutions, including Emory and UT Austin, where faculty members are currently contemplating no-confidence votes in their respective presidents for their role in allowing the protests to descend into chaos. Faculty at Columbia are also considering a letter of rebuke for Shafik related to student arrests.

Free speech groups including the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) have also raised concerns about violent repression of protests. FIRE condemned “the disturbing display of force against pro-Palestinian protests” at UT Austin, which it called “vulgar displays of power” that “violate both the First Amendment and state law.”

State and national officials have also weighed in.

From the steps of Columbia’s Low Memorial Library, Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson called on Shafik to “immediately bring order to this chaos” in reference to the protests or step down.

“The madness has to stop,” Johnson declared to a booing crowd.

Texas governor Greg Abbott cheered on the arrests at UT Austin, writing on social media, “These protesters belong in jail.” He added, “Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled.”

His remarks were widely condemned by free speech groups, including FIRE and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The use of force at protests has raised concern among some Democrats. In Georgia, 11 Democratic lawmakers said in a statement that they were “deeply alarmed by reports of excessive force used by Georgia State Patrol” at Emory and called the tactics “extreme.” 

Republicans in the state, however, have shown support for the response at Emory.

“We will proudly stand by any university that takes action to protect the health and safety of Georgia’s students,” Republican state Attorney General Chris Carr wrote on social media.

Kimbrough suggested that “political pressure is driving who is being more aggressive with these encampments [versus] those who have a different approach” and have allowed protests to continue.

Presidents who have allowed protests to continue have largely skirted the backlash.

At Michigan State, Guskiewicz explained his rationale for allowing the encampment in an email to fellow administrators. He noted that while the encampment violated university policy, students could apply for a permit that would allow the encampment to remain. In response, students applied for a permit which was granted, allowing the tents to remain.

“The university respects and upholds the right to protest and freedom of speech. At the same time, certain regulations must be adhered to [to] ensure the safety and proper functioning of our campus. Our police department was instrumental in ensuring a safe environment for the protest and for our greater campus, and I’m grateful for their professionalism and commitment to our Spartan community,” Guskiewicz wrote last week in an email shared with Inside Higher Ed.

He added that MSU has “no direct investments in gun manufacturers” or “direct or indirect investments in the three publicly traded civilian firearms manufacturers” or “Israeli-issued security bond[s],” adding that “the university will not be making any divestment changes.”

‘Pretty Restrained by Historical Standards’

Other protests been allowed to proceed for even longer. At Smith College, students occupied an administrative building in late March and held it for two weeks, demanding divestment. No arrests were reportedly made, even though the protesters took over a key administrative space.

Swarthmore College has also allowed a protest encampment established last week to remain. The encampment follows a sit-in last fall, when students demanded divestment. President Valerie Smith warned in an email in January that “we cannot permit any similar events to take place this spring.” With Smith now on sabbatical for the spring semester, acting co-presidents Tomoko Sakomura and Rob Goldberg have allowed the encampment to remain.

“We will work with the student organizers of this latest act of protest to try to bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion, but this may take some time to resolve. In the meantime, we expect that students and their allies will protest peacefully and be mindful of how their actions might affect other members of our community,” Sakomura and Goldberg wrote in a message last week.

For college leaders weighing their options, Johnston believes allowing encampments to remain is the preferred approach; violently removing protesters will only prompt more demonstrations.

“There are, I think, a significant number of campuses where the administration has just made a decision to leave them be and that means not just not rousting the protests, but not imposing a visible and aggressive police presence next to the protests,” Johnston said. “And all of the evidence that we are seeing suggests those encampments are proceeding in a calm and peaceful way.”

In any case, the latest wave of protests have been “pretty restrained by historical standards,” he said, with limited vandalism and property damage. Students have also largely been quick to disavow and condemn any antisemitic statements that have crept into campus demonstrations. Inviting collision between peaceful protesters and police, he believes, will only drive more attention.

“The images that are coming out of these protests are going viral in a way that ensures that there’s going to be a lot more eyes on what’s going on on campuses in the coming days,” he said.

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