Massive Pro-Palestinian College Protests Bring Rare Surge in Discipline

Ed Ou for The Washington Post
Police encircle a sit-in by Fordham University protesters on Wednesday.

As pro-Palestinian student protests surged in the past week, universities responded with consequences not imposed en masse for decades: suspensions, expulsions and arrests, hoping to tamp down a spiraling movement that has inflamed passions on all sides.

Experts reached back to student protests against South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s and even further to the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early ’70s for comparisons. Nothing since then has come close to this sort of disciplinary crackdown.

For students and school leaders alike, the stakes are high. School leaders face intense scrutiny over their handling of a deeply political issue. Students face the prospect of losing a semester’s worth of credit and tuition money and, for some, the possibility of not graduating on time. Some students might find their financial aid jeopardized.

“Students were suspended and expelled in the ’60s and the ’80s, but more recently we’ve seen universities be much more lenient with student protesters,” said Thai Jones, a Columbia University lecturer who studies the history of radical social movements. “What we’re seeing now … represents something very different.”

The different response today appears driven by the complicated politics of the conflict, the fact that there are other students on the opposite side of the issue, and the pressure on universities to respond to perceived or actual antisemitism from some on the pro-Palestinian side.

Many students have responded to threats and punishments with defiance. At Fordham University in New York City, students wrote “Free Palestine” on their suspension notices, according to a journalist on the scene. At Brown University, sophomore Rafi Ash continued to participate in an encampment after an arrest late last year and after a threat of suspension more recently.

“We’re willing to make these sacrifices and take these risks because we understand the risks that students in Gaza face simply for existing,” Ash said. The charges were ultimately dropped, and so was the suspension threat, after protesters reached an agreement with Brown, though Ash may still face probation.

The discipline often involves charges that students maintained unauthorized encampments that disrupted campus life and infringed on the rights of other students. Often students are accused of failing to abide by the university’s policies governing the “time, place and manner” of gatherings or of posing a safety concern. In some cases, allegations are more serious: destruction of property or vandalism, for instance. And police involvement has soared, with more than 2,200 people arrested at pro-Palestinian protests on American college campuses in the past two weeks.

Overall, it is clear that campus leaders across the country have decided they will no longer tolerate the protests, which often consist of dozens of tents set up on a prominent green space on campus. In a few cases, colleges have negotiated agreements with students to end them, but in most places, there either were no negotiations or they broke down, and administrators are now using discipline.

“One group’s rights to express their views cannot come at the expense of another group’s right to speak, teach, and learn,” Columbia University President Minouche Shafik said in a statement last Monday announcing that negotiations with protesters had failed. The statement was issued just before Columbia notified students that they would be suspended if they did not leave their encampment.

Columbia is hardly alone. On Monday, Harvard University announced that those continuing to participate in a campus encampment would be placed on “involuntary leave” – barred from taking exams, living in Harvard housing or being on campus.

Earlier, the University of Georgia suspended close to a dozen students last week for setting up an encampment on campus, protesters told reporters. George Washington University suspended seven students for setting up tents in a grassy yard. At Tulane this month, the school announced that it was suspending seven students who helped erect a tent encampment on the edge of a campus lawn. Schools including Yale, Barnard, New York University, Columbia and UCLA have all threatened suspensions or expulsions.

Vanderbilt, meanwhile, expelled three students in early April who helped lead a 21-hour sit-in in a main campus building calling for divestment from Israel. Vanderbilt’s provost wrote in a statement that “student choices and decisions can lead to serious and costly consequences.”

Suspending or expelling students typically involves an internal process and opportunity for appeal, where evidence is presented and students have the chance to defend themselves. Those proceedings are just now beginning in most cases and could take weeks or months. They are already being criticized as overly harsh, for instance in a lawsuit against Indiana University filed by the state ACLU.

But in the meantime, students face tough choices: abandon activism that they care deeply about, or risk losing credit for an entire semester of classes already paid for.

Facing suspension, a student must choose

Katie Rueff, who is in her first year at Cornell University, received a notice on April 26 informing her that she had been temporarily suspended and could no longer attend classes, take exams or set foot onto most of campus. It was one of four issued to students that day, she said.

The notice explained that Rueff had applied for a permit for an art installation – an eight-foot-high painted wall declaring “The sun will shine in a free Palestine” – in the Arts Quad and had made various assurances in her application. For instance, the notice said, Rueff had assured the university there would be no tents and fewer than 50 attendees, and that the event would not have food or music. An encampment staged in the Arts Quad soon after violated those terms, the letter said.

“Your actions directly led to an unauthorized event, where participants have flatly refused to comply with university policies and the lawful directives of university officials specifically made to protect public health and safety,” the letter said. “The University has avenues available for everyone to make their voices heard, but this must be done in ways that respect the rights of all members of our community.” Cornell had offered protesters another, less prominent spot on campus, but they rejected it for various reasons.

In a statement to the community, Cornell President Martha E. Pollack said the encampment was displacing other events from the quad, disrupting nearby classes with noisy rallies, and diverting the attention of public safety and other staff. She said protesters refused to move after being warned that they would be punished.

Rueff said no one at the university approached her directly about the alleged violations before sending the suspension notice – what she sees as a violation of due process. She said officials should not have assumed that protest leaders would share the message. “They’re not supposed to escalate charges so quickly,” she said. She also said that just because she set up the art, that doesn’t mean she’s responsible for the encampment.

“I’m losing the second semester of my college career for this,” she said. “It does suck when it’s your second semester of college and, for practicing your rights of freedom of expression, you are losing $40,000 of tuition. It sucks, but I think it’s worth it. Our demands are very, very important. We need Cornell to stop investing in genocide.”

On Thursday, Cornell offered to allow Rueff to finish and get credit for the semester if she agreed to stay away from and not promote any campus protests that the school considers violations of the university policy, she said. She also would be barred from encouraging others to participate. She declined, saying she objected to being used as a “bargaining chip” to distract from the group’s demands.

“I believe that my suspension is bigger than just me,” she said. “I want to continue to use my voice.”

Joel M. Malina, Cornell’s vice president for university relations, confirmed in a statement that the university offered to let suspended students receive incompletes in their courses and later finish the spring term if they agreed to “not facilitate, engage in, participate or assist in any other violations of university policy.” He also said students on temporary suspension maintain access to university housing, dining and health services.

The stress of the situation has been difficult for Rueff’s father, Alex Rueff, who is helping pay the tuition. He said in an interview that he does not always agree with Katie’s choices or politics and that he is concerned about the financial and other ramifications of a suspension. But he said the most important thing to him was sustaining his relationship with her.

“Suspension and loss of money and loss of time was really upsetting, but losing my daughter would be worse,” he said in an interview.

But not all families can afford to forgo a semester’s worth of tuition.

Michael Lee-Chang, a sophomore who has been involved in protests at California State University at Sacramento, said he has not been threatened with suspension but worries he might be. He’s already on probation for something unrelated to the protests, and he cannot afford to be expelled.

“My family is relying on me to graduate,” he said. “I need a degree to find a job to support my mom and I.”

He added that he wears masks and avoids clothing that would be recognizable when he goes to protest. “If university administrators closed in on the encampment, I would leave – for my own safety and for the assurance that I may have a chance to still graduate.”

Patricia Li
Katie Rueff, a first-year student at Cornell University, with the pro-Palestinian art installation she helped organize.

Why this time it’s different

Experts agree that the protests underway – and the reactions to them – are far more sweeping than anything seen since the Vietnam-era demonstrations. Back then, protests and suspensions were commonplace. And when four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard while demonstrating at Kent State University, that sparked more protests still.

At Columbia, for instance, the school called in 1,000 New York police officers in 1968 to make 700 arrests. The school also suspended 73 students at the time, although only 30 suspensions were upheld.

The closest comparison since Vietnam came in the 1980s as students protested South Africa’s apartheid regime. That, too, led to arrests, though those demonstrations did not spread as fast as today’s events.

Since then, almost no schools had pursued these kinds of tactics until now, said Jones, the Columbia lecturer. Instead, he said, administrators were “highly tolerant” of student movements calling for ethnic-studies programs or urging schools to divest from private prison companies or fossil fuels, even making high-profile concessions to students’ demands in some cases.

In 2017, Yale agreed to drop the name of former vice president and senator John Calhoun, an avid proponent of slavery, from a prominent campus building after students held a sustained series of protests, including blocking intersections. In 2021, Harvard agreed to end its investments in fossil fuels after long-standing student calls for divestment, including the occupation of campus buildings.

And in 2015, Columbia agreed to sell its shares in private security and private prison companies – and vowed never to invest in such firms again – a year after students launched a protest campaign.

Universities were able to manage those disputes in part because they had worked to create spaces and guidelines for free speech and assembly that were successful in satisfying all parties. But now those guidelines are being tested in new ways, said Peter Lake, a law professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University.

“We saw a real movement prior to this to insist that college campuses be open public spaces to dialogue,” he said. “Now it’s kind of boomeranging in a way that was not anticipated.”

In recent years, student groups have been more willing to abide by the conditions set forth by the universities, said Lindsie Rank, director of campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

“This moment it feels a little bit different because, alongside peaceful protests, which are certainly happening, we’re seeing a lot of violations of reasonable and content-neutral rules,” she said, pointing to rules about how loud sound may be amplified or whether tents are allowed. And, she added, not all the protests have been peaceful.

Another critical factor: This conflict puts one group of students in direct conflict with another, with campus leaders feeling pressure to respond to Jewish students who say the movement makes them feel scared, unwelcome or even unsafe on campus. A Jewish student has already sued Columbia for failing to protect members of her faith during the protests. (A lawsuit also was filed on behalf of pro-Palestinian groups over suspensions of the organizations.)

As such, universities are under enormous pressure to protect Jewish students and combat antisemitism on campus. The House education committee has already held two high-profile hearings on the subject and plans a third. The first helped lead to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania; in the second, Columbia’s president took a strong stand against antisemitism. A week after the hearing, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) put additional pressure on Columbia when he visited the school and called on the school’s president to resign “if she could not immediately bring order to this chaos.”

“If the president of Harvard can get fired on this, they are going to be afraid for their jobs,” said Robert Cohen, a history professor and expert on student protests at New York University. “It wouldn’t be unreasonable as a [university] president to feel, if this protest is not suppressed, it can threaten your job.”

This is all very different from protests in recent years, said Jones, when “there was no one who was really actively in favor of investing in prisons or fossil fuels.”

“This,” he said, “is a uniquely divisive issue.”