“Why I Ended the University of Chicago Protest Encampment.” — University of Chicago president Paul Alivisatos

2024.04.29 GWU Anti-Israel Protest, Washington, DC USA 120 63113. (Photo: Ted Eytan)

Why I Ended the University of Chicago Protest Encampment,” explained UC head Paul Alivisatos in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal this week.

As pro-Palestine protests and on-campus chaos have spread over the past weeks — resulting in hundreds of arrests — a few bright spots have emerged in a depressing landscape otherwise littered with antisemitism, lawlessness, and violence.

Some elite universities have by turns bowed to protesting students and, possibly worse, dithered as the crisis escalated.

Sometimes doing nothing is doing something. In this case, universities that failed to act even as protests descended into lawbreaking and violence created undue danger for the police officers eventually called to intervene. Doing nothing, in these cases, heightened the risk of injury and death for all participants, principals, and community stakeholders.

Incubating such a dangerous and chaotic atmosphere on campus also exposed universities, and their managers, to legal liability as yet unknown. Already, throngs of board members, alumni, donors, boosters, parents, et al are lining up to complain and/or organize class-action lawsuits.

But while some universities failed this test of leadership, others demonstrated the moral clarity, character, and good decision-making for which the Ivy League has been famous.

For his chief reason, University of Chicago president Paul Alivisatos gave the following: “Students demanded that we side against Israel, violating the core principle of institutional neutrality.”

However, Alivisatos could just as well have toplined his other key points.

“As president of the University of Chicago, I ended the encampment that occupied the University’s Main Quad for more than a week,” he confessed. “The Tuesday morning action resulted in no arrests. Recent months have seen tremendous contention over protests on campuses, including pressure campaigns from every direction. That made this a decision of enormous import for the university.”

“When the encampment formed on our campus, I said I would uphold the university’s principles and resist the forces tearing at the fabric of higher education,” he explained. “I didn’t direct immediate action against the encampment. I authorized discussions with the protesters regarding an end to the encampment in response to some of their demands. But when I concluded that the essential goals that animated those demands were incompatible with deep principles of the university, I decided to end the encampment with intervention.”

“Immediate intervention is consistent with enforcing reasonable regulations on the time, place and manner of speech, and it has the advantage of minimizing disruption,” he wrote.

Chicago University’s president described his meetings with protesting students and their leadership. While both sides seemed to work in good faith during the discussions, a common cause could not be found.

“Why then didn’t we reach a resolution?” Alivisatos asked. “Because at the core of the demands was what I believe is a deep disagreement about a principle, one that can’t be papered over with carefully crafted words, creative adjustments to programming, or any other negotiable remedy.”

“Underpinning the demands was a call for the university to diminish ties with Israel and increase ties with the Palestinians in Gaza,” he revealed. “In short, the protesters were determined that the university should take sides in the conflict in Israel and Gaza. Other demands would have led to having political goals guide core aspects of the university’s institutional approaches, from how we invest our endowment to when and how I make statements.”

“Faculty members and students are more than free to engage in advocacy on one side or the other,” he wrote. “But if the university did so as an institution, it would no longer be much of a university.”

In so doing, Alivisatos wasn’t in the majority, but he wasn’t alone.

University of Florida prez tells colleges to take his school’s lead on anti-Israel protests,” wrote Ryan King for the New York Post on May 5, 2024.

“We believe in the right to free speech,” University of Florida president Ben Sasse told CNN. “We believe in the right to free assembly, and you can try to persuade people. But what you see happening on so many campuses across the country is instead of drawing the line in speech and action, a lot of universities bizarrely give the most attention and most voice to the smallest, angriest group, and it’s just not what we’re going to do here.”

“And what we tell all of our students, protesters and non, is there are two things we’re going to affirm over and over again: We will always defend your right to free speech and free assembly,” Sasse said.

“And also, we have time, place and manner restrictions, and you don’t get to take over the whole university,” Sasse outlined. “People don’t get to spit at cops. You don’t get to barricade yourselves in buildings. You don’t get to disrupt somebody else’s commencement.”

“I ran by our group of protesters waving their Palestinian flag; we protect their right to do that,” he continued. “But we have rules. One of those rules is we don’t allow camping on campus. And so, you can’t start to build an encampment.”

“But our goal is not to arrest people,” Sasse went on. ““It’s to help them get into compliance with the rules. They can protest. They can try to persuade people, but they don’t get to build a camp. Nobody, else does either.”

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)