Following a semester with protests and encampments, what are colleges doing to prepare for the fall?

3 weeks ago

PHILADELPHIA — Visitors to the University of Pennsylvania once were able to enter the campus at 34th and Walnut Streets and stroll onto the College Green.

Penn fenced in the area and only those with Penn IDs can enter. This came after city and university police disbanded a pro-Palestinian encampment on the campus last month, but even though the semester ended over a month ago, it remains restricted.

A Penn spokesperson declined to comment on why it’s still closed or when it might reopen. Access to open spaces, once the sites of controversial encampments, is one of many thorny issues campuses across the country will have to wrestle with before students return to campus for the fall semester.

“Many campuses are still doing wound care,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education. “It sort of stops the bleeding, but you still have bandages on.”

Penn earlier this month announced its new temporary guidelines for handling protests — it mentions encampments for the first time and bans them.

But many other colleges have yet to say how they will refine their strategies, following a spring with unprecedented encampments, arrests and general tension among the faculties and student bodies over the war between Israel and Hamas. If the conflict in the Middle East is unresolved come August, turmoil on campuses is likely to continue, with the presidential election adding even more tension.

“The starting place is that universities should take the approach of expanding opportunities for freedom of expression, instead of starting with the approach of how to limit those opportunities,” said Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of labor and employment law at Cornell University and general counsel for the American Association of University Professors. “That includes expanding locations for protest and other kinds of expression … That includes spontaneous kinds of protest, protests that may be loud, that may include amplification and that may be disruptive in certain ways.

“The starting place should be a recognition that speech and protest is often disruptive and that it is necessarily disruptive. Disruption is part of education.”

Any new rules, she said, should be developed with input from faculty and student bodies, and unions if universities have them, in support of a shared governance model.

Mitchell said campuses should use the summer to bolster programs that foster dialogue across differences, carefully review campus conduct policies, prepare to clearly communicate those policies and be consistent in their applications. Universities did not always treat protests around the Israeli-Gaza conflict the same way as they supported rallies around Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ and other issues, he said.

“I don’t think there’s anything for us to do other than admit that,” he said. “We have to do better about being even-handed.”

Colleges, he said, should look closely at several decisions recently handed down by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights regarding campuses’ handling of antisemitism and anti-Arab discrimination.

Most recently, the office found that Lafayette College in Easton showed “inconsistent responses to the same conduct depending on whether it occurred on or off campus, responding to a student protester who carried a sign during a campus protest by repeatedly meeting with the student to discuss the harm the phrase on the sign could inflict and securing a commitment from the student never to use the phrase again in future campus protests but not responding to reports of use of the same phrase in social media or to other reports of social media content that students alleged had created a hostile environment for them.”

Lafayette entered into a resolution agreement to look again at its decision on harassment complaints over the last academic year, including those involving social media, review its policies and procedures on handling discrimination complaints, and provide training to staff, according to the department.

Mitchell said colleges also should be clear on whether they will allow encampments. They should have a clear protocol on whether and when to issue statements on current events, he said, which is not an easy task given that there may be some disagreement between boards and administrations. They’ll also have to look at how to handle cases of individual departments that issue their own statements and how free faculty are to express their views in the classroom, he said.

“Is a faculty member free to wear a pro-Palestinian button while teaching a class on Mideast history?” he asked, posing a possible scenario.

Colleges also will have to consider how to handle protesters who wear masks, concealing their identities, he said.

“A lot of these are not problems to be solved, but dilemmas to be managed,” he said.

Just how local colleges will do that is unclear.

Bryn Mawr College, where an encampment went up in late April but came down last month, said it was waiting for the arrival of its new president, Wendy Cadge, on July 1.

Swarthmore College, which for the first time in its history held commencement off campus because a pro-Palestinian encampment was occupying the space usually used — and still faced some disruption during the ceremony — did not offer comment on what it was doing to prepare.

Rutgers and Drexel, which also had encampments, both said they have reviews underway.

Drexel in March hired the Cozen O’Connor Law Firm’s Institutional Response Group to review the university’s responses to reports of discrimination and harassment. That review will include an evaluation of “its policies and procedures for safeguarding academic freedom and free speech while ensuring the safety and well-being of all students, faculty and professional staff,” the school said in a statement.

Input will be sought from faculty, students, staff and trustees, the university said.

As for encampments, Drexel said it reserves the right “to regulate the time, place, and manner of campus protests” for safety reasons and noted in a statement that it “will not permit disruptive encampments and demonstrations.”

Drexel, like Penn, has continued to fence in the area of campus where the encampment had been, and only those with Drexel IDs can pass. The closure is not permanent, a university spokesperson said, “but until further notice.”

Rutgers University said its code of conduct is under review, with input from faculty, staff and students being sought.

“The university also is reviewing all guidelines and protocols for free expression on campus ahead of the fall semester,” said spokesperson Dory Devlin.

In its temporary guidelines, in addition to banning encampments, Penn prescribes how groups must schedule space for protests or other events and adhere to guidelines on allowable noise and displaying of signs.

The guidelines also for the first time specifically prohibit light projections on buildings without permission from university officials. In November, messages including “from river to the sea, Palestine shall be free,” were projected on several Penn buildings, including Penn Commons, Huntsman Hall and Irvine Auditorium. It is a sentiment that some have used as a rallying cry for the destruction of Israel, and the university said at the time that an investigation was underway and the school would take action.

Mitchell credited Penn with being clear about its new rules and responding to new protest practices, such as the use of light projections.

But Lieberwitz called Penn’s decision to ban encampments “the opposite of regulations that are as narrowly tailored as possible.”

The rules also use words such as “respect” and “harass,” which if not defined, are open to interpretation, she said. She also questioned the need for the university’s rule that prohibits the covering of statues with any material.

The university has created a task force that will look at the school’s “open expression” guidelines over the next academic year and recommend permanent guidelines.

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