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The Climate on College Campuses concerning the War in Gaza


College Campus Protest The War in Gaza
College Campus Protest The War in Gaza

Almost 64 years ago, college campuses were deeply instrumental in protesting the Vietnam War. This week, we capture the qualitative essence and cultural climate of the War in Gaza protests on college campuses. These protests call for many demands, which are being met with the erosion of institutional control and some congressional overreach through calls for Presidents’ resignations (again) and potentially sending in the National Guard.


To begin, a college or university should be the bedrock of free expression, free exchange of ideas, and diverse academic discourse, free from violence or any threat to student safety. The dynamic variation of these three concepts has cascaded in many directions depending upon your political views, lived experiences and affiliations, and ultimately, the underpinnings that one would subscribe to as confirmation bias. Rather than venture down this rabbit hole, we will focus on the Student Affairs context and the mitigation of an intricately complex forcefield that boils down to the student demands versus university crisis management.


Columbia University, Florida State University, Northwestern University, Harvard University, Emerson College, Tufts University, Emory University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and many others have student protests currently reeling with demands that their colleges cut ties with weapons manufacturers that are supplying Israel with arms to carry out strikes in Gaza. The Chronicle has stated, "Many of the student protests are taking the form of Gaza solidarity encampments or liberated zones, inspired by student protesters at Columbia University where more than 100 protesters were arrested on April 18, 2024. These arrests came one day after its president, Nemat (Minouche) Shafik, testified at a congressional hearing about her administration’s response to campus antisemitism since the Israel-Hamas war began.”


Colleges and Universities broadly do not prohibit peaceful protesting on their campuses. However, the issue has become much more violent for the student environment, and faculty, staff, and surrounding communities have been involved in the protests, both with support for Palestine and support for Israel. So, this is, in fact, a layered social and economic justice initiative.


One of the student demands is financial divestment, the most complex layer that does not have an end in sight. For a university to cut ties with financial contracts, donor relationships, and any monetary contributions for the sake of this argument, it would require divestments in grants and research funding, legalities surrounding initial gifts and allocations, multi-year contracts underway, and a host of other financial intricacies and intellectual properties. As the students continue to make demands, it is plausible to aim for the practicalities such as providing actionable outcomes to make campus a safer environment, expressing written and verbal concern to congressional leaders about the war, and perhaps even requiring institutional leaders to organize dialogue forums that allow students to express themselves outwardly. At the congressional level, it is up to the Legislative Branch to continue sending funding for this war or to cease funding. That option does not rest with college presidents.


Another factor to consider is the many different perspectives on this ongoing issue. We must capture the pulse of what is being said and how to mitigate the concerns of our students. Here are a few stakeholder perspectives to consider that have commented on the protests and the War in Gaza.


College Faculty Perspectives

“Call the Philosophy department and tell them I’ve been arrested.”—Noelle McAfee, Chair of the Philosophy Department at Emory University.


[email] "Hello everyone, in light of artist traditions, studies, activism, and movements, tomorrow’s discussion will be held in Deering Meadow. If you’re already there, I’ll see you. Onward.” – Isaac Vazquez, Lecturer of Art History, Northwestern University


"As a CUNY alumnus who has also worked and taught at CUNY and lives right around the corner from City College, I'm proud to see these brave students doing the right thing." —Dr. Cam McDonald is an Anthropologist at Pace University who previously taught at NYU, Northwestern University, and Rice University.


College students’ Perspectives

“I believe that every Jewish student deserves to be represented at commencement just like every other student at commencement. The position of having the valedictorian honor is supposed to be a unifying honor, and I believe that my commitment to human rights, and my commitment to equal treatment, should not be manipulated into an expression of disunity. What I say to my Jewish classmates is your feelings are heard, and I think that you are entitled to your own positions on the basis of academic discourse… but when it comes to the unconditional and unequivocal right to life, then I think that all USC students, because I have faith in my university that instilled these values in us, I believe that all USC students believe in that.” - Asna Tabassum, University of Southern California (USC) 2024 Valedictorian denied commencement speech opportunity.


“Hi, my name is Bella, I am a senior at Emory University. Today, we were trying to build an encampment, there were students from all sorts of backgrounds across the university, and we were out here just chanting peacefully, and there were some folks that were trying to march, then all of a sudden, a huge patrol of police, many different types of police from Georgia, all came in and basically swarmed the entire crowd and demanded that we be on the sidewalk. Some of us did get on the sidewalk and despite that there were still people on the sidewalk that were arrested.” – Bella, Senior at Emory University.


“We will not stop; we will not rest. Disclose. Divest!” Harvard University students’ chant


United States Leadership Perspectives

“We need to call in the national guard and law enforcement to take control” – House Speaker Mike Johnson, House of Representatives (Legislative Branch)


“Here’s the way I look at it… The First Amendment is important, but it doesn’t give you the ability to claim there is a fire going on in the theatre, because it will threaten everyone else. What needs to happen, at least at the beginning, is these University Presidents need to get control of the situation, allowing free speech, and pushing back against antisemitism. I thought that [antisemitism] was largely gone in this country, but we’ve seen several young people who are antisemitic. Why don’t they all sit down and have a civil conversation rather than trying to dominate the talk. I think the first line of defense is the University Presidents. Let’s see if they [University Presidents] can get control of the situation. They ought to be able to do that. Civil Discussion is what education is supposed to be about.” – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel, United States Senate (Legislative Branch)


“Most of the bombs and most of the military equipment that the Israeli government is using in Gaza is provided by the United States and subsidized by the American Taxpayer. The U.S Military is not dropping 2,000-pound bombs on civilian apartment buildings, the U.S military is not doing that… but we are supplying those bombs. The United States of America is not blocking the borders preventing food, water, and medical supplies… but we have supplied billions of dollars to the Netanyahu government, which is doing just that. So, this is not just an Israeli war, this is an American war as well.” – Senator Bernie Sanders, United States Senator (Legislative Branch)


Conclusion


The consensus seems clear that the War in Gaza is drawing strong feelings from domestic entities, and University Leaders must think critically about how they will respond. For college students to be arrested for merely protesting seems counterproductive to teaching them that their academic freedom, their freedom of speech, and their ability to protest peacefully is allowed. Law enforcement should be determining if hate speech is happening, if violence is ensuing, as those gestures should be dealt with judicially and legally. We should be protecting students from violence and ensuring they understand the difference between free speech and hate speech.


As the climate on college campuses continues to ebb and flow, I believe it is a larger symptom of our country's leadership and should be met with collaborative solutions, instead of resulting in ousting college presidents when there is political unrest and volatility all over the country. We have to be intentional about solutions and it begins with keep our students at the heart of the university organizational framework.


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Rebuttals are always welcome,

 

Dr. Jade M. Felder

@felderofficial - X




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