Speaking Up

Presidents shouldn't be afraid to defend the right of peaceful protest, even when it involves raising questions about incidents at other campuses, writes Michael Roth, because the principle is so important.

November 28, 2011

A few days after campus police used truncheons to break up a nonviolent protest at the University of California at Berkeley, I received an e-mail describing the use of excessive force in Sproul Plaza. I wound up blogging about the incident, both on my campus and for The Huffington Post. My administrative colleagues were concerned about whether I should be criticizing another university, and another administration. I suppose as a president I was supposed to have more in common with chancellors, presidents and their "reports" than I was supposed to have with professors and students. This is misdirected allegiance. We are all students and teachers. This has only become more evident with the inappropriate use of force at UC Davis and other venues.

After I published the post, I received many supportive comments and more than a few critical ones. Two strains of criticism seemed to me particularly important. The first emphasized the difficulties for the police officers, and it asked me about my apparent lack of concern for them. This struck home for me because I have worked closely with and depended on our campus public safety officers and (much more rarely) on the local police force. I have a great deal of respect for the work they do, and I am proud of Wesleyan’s Public Safety’s professionalism and concern for student and faculty welfare. After all, that’s why I was critical of the work of the forces of order on the UC campuses. The use of excessive force undermines the mission of the university and makes it harder for campus police to do their legitimate and very important jobs.

The second strain of criticism came from readers who thought I left the door open for using force when I wrote: "I can imagine (with dread) extreme situations in which force would be required to preserve campus safety and our ongoing operations. As students, staff and faculty make their voices heard, however, the university's responsibility is to protect their rights, even as it ensures that the educational mission of the school continues.” A parent and some students asked me if this meant that I would break up demonstrations with force akin to what we’ve seen on the West Coast. My point was actually to separate legitimate force to protect safety and operations from excessive force. Everybody agrees, I think, that violent criminals on campuses should be stopped before they inflict harm. What about peaceful but disruptive protest? I have tried to indicate that my administration might have to move or arrest protesters who intended to act in civil disobedience, but that we would do so while protecting their rights.
I have been on both sides of civil disobedience and know how difficult the situations can be when a group decides to intentionally violate the law or disrupt the work of an organization to make a political point. We build and care for our campuses so that they can be places for education, places where a multitude of voices can be heard, and where communicative civil disobedience can be protected. I am not so naïve as to think that this means that all campus constituencies will agree and sing Kumbaya (or, in today’s version, be in a drum circle). But I do think it’s our duty as campus leaders to be responsible for the protestors and the police, for those who choose protest and those who choose to go about their business. As teachers and students, as people who want to learn by working at institutions of learning, we must do no less.

Our faculty forum listserv recently received an email forwarded by Professor Donald Moon from colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley. The message described the excessive use of force by Berkeley police in their attempt to dismantle tents in Sproul Plaza. I was in that plaza a couple of weeks ago, speaking nearby at Berkeley's Townsend Center for the Humanities. I was shocked to read that one of my hosts, Celeste Langan, the director of the center, was arrested and manhandled along with several students, staff and faculty who were protesting peacefully. Here's the beginning of Professor Langan's comment on what happened:
I participated in the Occupy Cal rally on Sproul Plaza on November 9 (my sign, "We're Afraid for Virginia Woolf," made it to the Daily Cal’s top 10) and stayed for the general assembly. The organizers of Occupy Cal asked those who were willing to stay and link arms to protect those who were attempting to set up the encampment; I chose to do so. I knew, both before and after the police gave orders to disperse, that I was engaged in an act of civil disobedience. I want to stress both of those words: I knew I would be disobeying the police order, and therefore subject to arrest; I also understood that simply standing, occupying ground, and linking arms with others who were similarly standing, was a form of non-violent, hence civil, resistance. I therefore anticipated that the police might arrest us, but in a similarly non-violent manner. When the student in front of me was forcibly removed, I held out my wrist and said "Arrest me! Arrest me!" But rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed. The injuries I sustained were relatively minor -- a fat lip, a few scrapes to the back of my palms, a sore scalp -- but also unnecessary and unjustified. You can read more here.

Here's a YouTube video that includes her arrest:

As indicated in the e-mail from Berkeley, the absurdity of the university's response is best summarized by Steven Colbert:

Berkeley, like Wesleyan, has a long and proud tradition of protest. As a student here I participated in protests, and now as president I have been (and likely will be again) their object. I can imagine (with dread) extreme situations in which force would be required to preserve campus safety and our ongoing operations. As students, staff and faculty make their voices heard, however, the university's responsibility is to protect their rights, even as it ensures that the educational mission of the institution continues. Our joint responsibility is for the future of an open and safe campus environment where learning, grounded in freedom of thought and expression, continues.
Professor Langan wrote that she was defending liberal education in Sproul Plaza -- that she was defending an idea of the university that is being dismantled by political and education leaders who support only the most narrow forms of instrumental training. Professor Langan's idea of the university emphasizes the links between the practice of free thinking and the cultivation of freedom in the years after graduation. She is a teacher and a student of Thoreau, the author of  Walden and of Civil Disobedience, who understood how our American emphasis on the bottom line can make us blind to the world before our eyes and to our possibilities for change. Thoreau wrote: We should seek to be fellow students with the pupil, and should learn of, as well as with him, if we would be most helpful to him. But I am not blind to the difficulties of the case; it supposes a degree of freedom which rarely exists.
At Wesleyan we believe strongly in this degree of freedom as we build a home for learning. And our colleagues on the West Coast, the faculty and staff who stood shoulder to shoulder with students at Berkeley, were exercising "a degree of freedom which rarely exists." Their peaceful efforts to protest the dismantling of a once great university deserve our respect. The violent response to these efforts deserves our condemnation.


Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University.


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