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A photo of a protester at Columbia University wearing a sign reading “Suspension for Gaza is the Highest Honor! Viva Palestina.”

Encampment protests strained college speech and student conduct policies over the spring.

Alex Kent/Getty Images

The pro-Palestinian encampments that once crowded U.S. campuses have mostly dissipated now, vanishing with the end of the academic year.

But the heightened student protests that erupted in April—first at Columbia University before quickly spreading coast to coast—seem likely to continue in some form when the fall semester arrives, bringing students and their political concerns back to campus. That likelihood only increases if the war between Israel and Hamas is still ongoing. This time, however, colleges will have the benefit of summer break to prepare and plan for the next wave of student protests.

It’s time they may well need, given Congress’s harsh scrutiny of administrators’ protest responses and the acknowledgment of some college presidents that their student codes of conduct and disciplinary policies were not designed to handle the rise of encampments.

Compounding the potential headache for administrators is the 2024 election, in which Democratic President Joe Biden is taking on former Republican President—and convicted felon—Donald Trump in a repeat matchup that has left many young voters disillusioned.

Now college leaders are heading into the summer with fall protests in mind.

Congressional Hearing Insights

When the leaders of Northwestern University, Rutgers University and the University of California, Los Angeles, appeared at a Congressional hearing on campus antisemitism last week, all three noted the strain that recent protests put on institutional policies.

In his opening remarks, Northwestern president Michael Schill noted the need for revised disciplinary measures on his campus.

“Where there is conduct that threatens the Northwestern community, we must impose discipline and we have done so,” he told Congress. “Yet I’ll be the first to admit our existing rules and policies are falling short. We must improve our processes to meet the current challenge. At my direction, we’ll be working over the summer to update our student conduct code. These new policies will be in place before students return to campus.”

He added, “We are confident we can continue to promote two principles at the core of our mission: free expression and academic freedom, while disciplining harassment and intimidation.”

Northwestern did not respond to a request from Inside Higher Ed for more information.

Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway noted the creation of “a task force to review procedures around codes of conduct and codes of ethics,” while emphasizing that students who have violated current university policies either have been or are in the process of being disciplined. 

A spokesperson said by email that the campus community will be able to weigh in on any changes to the code of conduct policy.

“Rutgers University ensures all policies are developed, reviewed, and maintained to promote consistency, efficiency, and transparency while reflecting best practices in higher education,” Rutgers spokesperson Megan Florance wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “Accordingly, the University Code of Student Conduct is currently under active review and will be amended as necessary to clearly outline expectations that continue to support a safe environment for the entire Rutgers community. As part of this review process, the university will also seek feedback from faculty, staff, and students before submitting any changes to the Board of Governors for approval.”

In response to lawmakers’ questions about potential changes at UCLA, Chancellor Gene Block noted at the hearing that he is retiring in July and won’t be on campus when the next academic year arrives. But Block recommended that officials spend extra time during summer orientation focusing on “respectful protest” time, place, and manner restrictions, as well as appropriate rules for campus demonstrations.

UCLA did not respond to a request from Inside Higher Ed for more information.

Preparing for Fall

Michael Harris, a professor of higher education and chair of the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at Southern Methodist University, believes that current policies and enforcement efforts were insufficient for the latest protests in part because of “atrophy in the system”—meaning they challenged college rules and disciplinary codes in ways not seen for some time. 

“I think what happened with the protests over the last several months was a stress test on policies that had not been stress-tested in recent years,” Harris said. “The Black Lives Matter protests [in 2020] were probably the last round where we got something akin to this.”

But those national protests—which followed the murder of an unarmed George Floyd by police—happened in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many students weren’t on campus. Unlike many encampment protests, the demonstrations spilled into city streets and were not heavily centralized on campuses. And unlike the current protests—which have been marked by sharply conflicting views among campus constituents—students, faculty and administrators expressed a shared outrage over Floyd’s murder.

Now that the academic year has ended for most institutions, Harris suspects revising campus policies will be a key focus for administrators over the summer.

“I think what most places are going to be doing is evaluating the sufficiency of current policies. And then where you find areas that are not as strong as they need to be, or just not as clear, that would be the place where people would look to add additional clarifications,” he said.

Harris expects colleges to examine where their policies fell short—and/or study cautionary tales from other campuses that faced significant disruptions—to better understand what they need to do. Then officials will likely issue clarifications around existing policies or introduce new rules. He predicts institutions will provide more guidance on speech codes without dramatically overhauling them.

“What the best policies are going to do is provide clarity for everybody and still allow for protest activities in a way that doesn't necessarily disrupt campus or certainly hinder free speech but also make sure that that campus is safe, that students are safe. Those regulations, properly crafted, can be beneficial for everybody to know what the ground rules are,” he said.

Experts from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) emphasize deference to the First Amendment in advising institutions on how to craft campus policies that center free speech rights.

“College presidents must make clear statements outlining the parameters of acceptable conduct by students: The vast majority of expression is protected under the First Amendment, [but] illegal conduct such as violence is not,” Mary Griffin, senior program officer for FIRE, said by email. “Often, making statements in defense of free expression (while acknowledging limitations of the narrow, clearly defined unprotected categories of speech and conduct such as discriminatory harassment, incitement, and true threats) will stave off controversy before it even begins.”

She added that the “biggest misstep” FIRE observes is overly restrictive speech codes. “FIRE often sees an uptick in censorship in election years,” she noted. “Given the current tense political climate and the protest activity on campuses this year,” she said she expects to see more of the same this fall.

Beyond free speech, Harris cited the importance of transparency in revising policies.

“A slight concern that I have in light of the last few months, is there may be a temptation to go around the typical review and approval process in the interests of expediency or because not everybody wants the light of day in the process,” he said. “And I would caution against that.”

The same teams of administrators charged with revising protest rules and policies will also likely have to implement another major change over the summer: new Title IX regulations, which the Department of Education expects colleges to comply with by Aug 1. That mandate is complicated for many colleges in red states, where GOP governors have sued to block the regulations over concerns about protections for LGBTQ+ students that they believe go too far. With some colleges double-tracking on protest rules and Title IX, Harris expects a busy summer.

“I don’t know how they’re going to have the bandwidth to do both,” Harris said.

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