Editorial: Response to campus protests only adds fuel to the fire

Dartmouth College student Maya Beauvineau, continues to sing a protest song she was leading when New Hampshire State Police in riot gear arrested her in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. Beauvineau was participating in a protest of the Israel-Hamas War during which students set up tents on the College Green in violation of university policy. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Dartmouth College student Maya Beauvineau, continues to sing a protest song she was leading when New Hampshire State Police in riot gear arrested her in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. Beauvineau was participating in a protest of the Israel-Hamas War during which students set up tents on the College Green in violation of university policy. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Published: 05-03-2024 9:01 PM

Modified: 05-05-2024 3:27 PM


It’s far too soon to tell what the ultimate effect will be of the demonstrations that have roiled college campuses this spring, including those at Dartmouth, the University of New Hampshire and the University of Vermont. But we hazard an educated guess that college administrators who resorted to heavy-handed repression of peaceful pro-Palestinian protests miscalculated badly.

It’s said that while history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme. On those grounds, we suspect that threatening students with expulsion and summoning cops in riot gear to break up tent encampments and arrest protesters is only likely to add fuel to the fire sparked by the Israel-Hamas war and the massive civilian casualties in Gaza. Such tactics have tended in the past to make radicals out of student activists and activists out of the apathetic. As Louis Menand pointed out in The New Yorker recently, “Calling in law enforcement did not work at Berkeley in 1964, at Columbia in 1968, at Harvard in 1969, or at Kent State in 1970.”

This is to say nothing of faculty members, who rightly view the college campus as their own province and for whom freedom of expression and academic freedom — the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn — are intimately linked.

The spectacle of Dartmouth history professor Annelise Orleck being thrown to the ground and arrested as police in tactical gear broke up a small encampment on the Dartmouth Green Wednesday night surely accomplished nothing except further inflaming opinion on campus and badly damaging the college’s reputation. Orleck was among 90 people arrested that night. We can’t remember another time before the arrival of current president Sian Beilock when the Dartmouth administration unleashed police on peaceful protesters.

College administrators across the country are betting that taking a hard line now through arrests and sanctions will deflate a movement that has been building momentum in recent weeks and that an uneasy peace will return with the end of the academic year. We suspect that they are also hoping to appease the big donors on whom the modern university depends in its endless quest for enrichment and, not incidentally, keep at bay the Grand Inquisitors in Congress. How else to explain the craven performance of Columbia president Minouche Shafik in a congressional appearance last month, when she threw under the bus two members of the faculty for things they had written or said, academic freedom be damned.

Perhaps Shafik also hoped to regain the good graces of the likes of Robert Kraft, the fabulously rich New England Patriots owner who is one of the university’s most generous donors as well as founder of the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism. Kraft has suggested he would stop giving until the administration took action “to protect its students and staff” from hate speech.

We note that Kraft is also a good buddy of one Donald Trump, who famously said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., where white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Go figure.

As to the Republicans in Congress who hope to make political hay out of the campus turmoil, we have two words of warning: Spontaneous combustion. Student movements have historically played a key role in swaying public opinion in favor of their causes, from civil rights to Vietnam to apartheid rule in South Africa.

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But there are differences, too. As the New York Times has pointed out, the current college protests are not just about the situation in Gaza. It reported, based on dozens of interviews on campuses across the country, that the current generation of protesters sees the Palestinian struggle as one linked to the fight against oppression, racism, imperialism and colonialism around the world, as well as environmental degradation. Making these kinds of connections is one of the things that academic study promotes — and why “woke”-ism is so feared in conservative circles.

Another key difference from the past, of course, is that this movement is entangled with allegations that it is at heart antisemitic. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu thinks it is; we don’t. But one thing is sure: Arresting protesters is not going to remedy antisemitism or Islamophobia or any other condition of the human heart and mind. That takes education, which is what colleges are supposed to be providing, whether it’s in a classroom or a tent encampment.