How these colleges successfully de-escalated campus protests

"Every day that you don't have police on campus arresting students is a good day," said a higher ed communications consultant. "Keeping the long view and maintaining constructive lines of communication should be the goal."

A new wave of student-led campus protests demanding institutional divestment from Israeli-backed corporations has bled into May. College leaders, out of tremendous concern for their students’ safety and institutions’ operations, have permitted using campus and local law enforcement to clear student encampments and make arrests. As well-intentioned as these efforts seem, they might have an inverse effect.

“As a Jewish student, I feel, at this moment in time, much less at risk of violence from being Jewish than just from being a student standing up for free speech,” Emory University Junior Maddie Lampert told the Georgia Recorder following the university’s use of state troopers on April 25.

As of May 2, 10 a.m. ET, a tally by Axios estimates more than 1,900 people have been arrested at pro-Palestinean protests on at least 43 college campuses across the U.S. in the past two weeks. More than 75 people have been arrested during demonstrations at the University of Texas-Austin and Virginia Tech, AP News reports. Over 150 were jailed at New York University and the University of California, Los Angeles, The New York Times reports.

Faculty leaders have since called for their presidents’ resignations, citing heavy-handed police crackdowns and their inability to work with demonstrators.

“To subject them to the threat of police violence was ironic,” Viet Thanh Nguyen, chair of USC’s English department, and professor Karen Tongson wrote in an op-ed for the university’s student newspaper following student arrests. “[S]o is the fact that the University administration called the police instead of relying on the very skills that the University is supposed to teach: debate and dialogue, critical thinking and analysis, and fostering an atmosphere in which dissent and disagreement are not seen as threatening or divisive but as the mechanisms by which we can achieve clearer intellectual, moral and political positions.”

Regardless of whether police presence is justified, some argue it ultimately creates bad optics for a university’s image.

“Every day that you don’t have police on campus arresting students is a good day,” said a higher ed communications consultant, according to Axios. “Keeping the long view and maintaining constructive lines of communication should be the goal.”

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Universities working with upset students

As much of an eyesore student-law enforcement riots are, some universities have found a way to de-escalate protests before their campus caught the national spotlight.

Several have done so by appeasing student demands and engaging with them on divesting from specific financial targets. Brown University convinced students to strip their encampments by inviting five students to present their argument to the Corporation of Brown University on why they should divest funds connected to the Israeli military, The Times reports. An advisory committee will then present their recommendation to the corporation for a vote. A similar deal was struck at Northwestern University, and the University of Minnesota agreed to disclose its financial holdings to students and allow them to speak with the Board of Regents on its finances. The negotiation tactic has helped students achieve a sense of agency, which in turn has helped convince them to end their encampments.

“This feels like a real moment of realizing our collective power,” Rafi Ash, a sophomore at Brown who participated in the protests, told The Times.

Kennesaw State University has been a site of relatively peaceful protests thanks to a coordinated panel discussion between college staff, students and law enforcement, Fox 5 Atlanta reports. Students had a chance to address their grievances to university leaders and understand law enforcement’s perspective on handling protests, while officers and school staff were able to connect.

“I really think since we opened this dialogue now with the university it will help us be able to respond better, because now we know who the leaders are and we can contact them prior to something happening,” Craig Owens, the county sheriff, told 5 Atlanta.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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