TASHJY: Higher education is at a crossroads and appeasing and negotiating with protesters is the wrong path to take

Are institutions going to retake their campuses and return to their core mission of teaching and learning or surrender that role to the mob?

Ken Tashjy served as General Counsel for the Massachusetts Community College System for over 21 years and currently serves as a higher education attorney and consultant. He has taught as an adjunct instructor at Suffolk University since 2008, and previously at Brandeis University as a Guberman Teaching Fellow. He received a B.A. in Psychology from Susquehanna University, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and his J.D. from Suffolk University Law School.

Much of what we recently witnessed on college and university campuses had nothing to do with free speech or the right to peacefully protest.  

Most protesters had little interest in engaging in an open dialogue and debate, tolerating differing views and opinions, or complying with institutional rules around when, where and how to peacefully protest.

As the “marketplace of ideas,” higher education must promote and preserve diversity of thought and expression and not tolerate or negotiate with students who seek to limit speech through threats, intimidation, or unlawful occupation.  

Unfortunately, many of these students’ formative years were influenced by their Generation X parents, who are generally characterized as soft on discipline, and big on negotiation and compromise.  

[RELATED: OPINION: Higher education must confront harassment and intimidation of Jewish students or risk losing millions in federal funding]

In many cases, the emphasis on negotiation over discipline has produced a generation of college students who have no appreciation or understanding of the word “no,” the importance of rules and boundaries, and that with actions come consequences.

This attitude was evident in their disregard for institutional rules and policies, refusal to comply with directives issued by school officials or law enforcement, indifference to the impact of their conduct on other students, and threats of continued unrest if their demands and ultimatums were not met.

Since protesters believed that their ends justify their means, they couldn’t be bothered with such trifles as disrupting final exams, commencement or other institutional operations, destroying property, or intimidating, threatening or harassing fellow students. 

Rather than chastising their kids’ conduct, these Gen X parents criticized school officials at many institutions, including George Washington University, Emerson College, and NYU, for calling in law enforcement to break-up the unauthorized encampments and disperse the protesters. 

NYU parents characterized the actions taken by school officials as “violent and horrific” and endangering “the safety of our children.”       

Contrast their misplaced anger and attitude of appeasement with the Baltimore mom who grabbed her son and dragged him home when she caught him throwing rocks at police during that city’s riots in 2015.   Tough love anyone?  

Unfortunately, many college administrators too took a conciliatory approach, marked by negotiations and compromise, when dealing with student protesters.    

For some administrators, their timid response was motivated by a misplaced paternal instinct (in loco parentis); in other cases, their inaction reflected their personal agreement with the protesters’ anti-Israel sentiments, and still others were unwillingness to confront the protestors out of fear of being labelled an “oppressor” per the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion dogma of the day.

At Northwestern University, in order to appease the protesters, the school agreed to fund two Palestinian faculty positions, offer exclusive housing to Muslim student, pay for the cost of attendance for five Palestinian students, and reestablish its investment responsibility committee.   

At Rutgers University, administrators accepted protesters’ demands to support ten “displaced Palestinian students” to finish their education at Rutgers, develop training sessions on anti-Muslim racism for all administrators & staff, and provide disciplinary amnesty for all students and staff who participated in the unauthorized protests and encampment.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, student protesters agreed to end their illegal encampment and not disrupt commencement after the University agreed to increase its support for scholars and students from Gaza and Ukraine, hire a Palestinian University scholar, add a staff member to serve students impacted by war, and leniency for students subject to university discipline.

Whatever the reasons, administrators negotiating and compromising with the protesters resulted in little more than a temporary cessation of hostilities, while ultimately incentivizing future protests.

Rather than placating and negotiating with protesters, at the first sign of a tent stake hitting the ground, school administrators should have swiftly and decisively dismantled the unauthorized encampments, dispersed the protesters, and disciplined or arrested those who refused to comply.  

Failing to do so gave protesters a foothold to control large portions of campus property, undermine campus safety, and dictate negotiations.

Institutions should also use the protests as an instructional tool to reinforce their commitment to free speech and expression, while drawing a stark contrast with speech and conduct that violates campus rules, disrupts institutional operations, or infringes on the rights of others.  

[RELATED: TASHJY: Blue State blues over migrant crisis is a self-inflicted wound]

The First Amendment does not protect students who participated in the unauthorized encampments, refused to disband when ordered to by school officials and police, occupied and vandalized buildings, harassed, threatened, or intimidated others, restricted access to campus facilities, or disrupted classroom instruction, commencement or other institutional functions.

Further, providing protesting students with disciplinary amnesty undermines order and safety on campus, discredits institutional policies, weakens administrative authority, and validates the protesters’ disruptive and illegal tactics. 

Indeed, higher education is at a crossroads.  On one path, the teaching and learning process, free speech and expression, the open exchange of diverse thought and ideas, and tolerance for differing views and opinions are valued and aspired to.  

On the other path is a mob with a message and they are willing to use any means necessary to advance that message.  

Institutional leaders must decide whether they will retake control of their institutions or surrender to the demands of the mob.  For those who have chosen to negotiate and capitulate in exchange for some momentary peace, it appears your decision has already been made.

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.