ACTA in the News | Trusteeship

How Trustees Can Save Columbia, Brown, Northeastern, Penn, Indiana, Yale…

REALCLEAREDUCATION   |  May 3, 2024 by Michael B. Poliakoff and Paul S. Levy

In an unprecedented display of leadership, the president, flanked by the provost and the chairman of the board of trustees, announced to the chanting and drumming students encamped in the South Quad:

Out of respect for the rights of the members of our academic community, we have restrictions on the time, manner, and place for protest, just as we have rules for those who live in our dormitories. The board of trustees has now vested in me the emergency authority to issue not ‘interim suspensions,’ but full-year suspensions that will remain permanently on your records if you do not remove your tents from the South Quad within one hour and follow university guidance on where and when you can continue your protest. The consequence of repeated infractions or occupying a building is expulsion. My staff has videotaped the encampment over the course of several hours, and we have identified many of you through your social media posts. My office has already begun informing your parents of the emergency policy. As for persons in the encampment who are not registered students, you must leave immediately, or you will be subject to arrest. And this time we will press charges. I hope you will all make wise choices.

This brief speech has yet to be uttered, though it is hardly fantasy. The University of Florida has been proactive since October 7 in preserving both order and the free exchange of ideas. The Division of Student Life has informed students in writing that speech, signs, and expressing viewpoints are permissible. Amplifiers, indoor demonstrations, camping, disruption, threats, and violence are forbidden, and students who violate the rules face suspension and a ban from campus. 

Staff who violate these rules face termination and a ban from campus. A few other university presidents have at least distinguished themselves by enforcing order and existing policies. Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier stands out for expelling three students and answering the student demand for divestment from Israel by citing the school’s official procedures: “The university will not take policy positions unless they directly affect the operating of the university. . . . calling for BDS, for a boycott of Israel, is inconsistent with institutional neutrality. So from our values point, we’re not going to go there.”  

Colleges now reap the grim fruit of years of tolerating intolerable behavior. How many Middlebury College students were suspended for shouting down Charles Murray and violence that left a distinguished Middlebury professor seriously injured? Zero. How many Stanford Law School students were suspended for shouting down Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan? Zero again. Washington College students who shouted down invited speaker and Princeton University Professor Robert George? See above. 

Columbia University is the tragicomic illustration of inadequate measures. With the occupation of Hamilton Hall, Columbia had no choice but to call in the police. Now, they need to inform the students that they will never ever receive a degree from the university. If they fail to do that, Columbia can expect, and will deserve, a repeat of the situation.

We need a new campus playbook, now and for the future, and that can only originate in the boardroom. Boards have authority over and responsibility for everything that happens on campus. They must use that power. Those that do not are guilty of malfeasance and base cowardice. It is hardly reassuring that so far, with a few exceptions, the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill Board of Trustees being one, they have left it to legislators to issue the statements that should be theirs.

Real consequences must be part of the equation for the students and faculty in the encampments. Getting arrested and released is simply a badge of honor. The career consequences of a year-long suspension or an expulsion that remains indelibly on the student’s record is something else. Blighting the chances for a prestigious law school admission or a high-value M.B.A. or a job at Goldman Sachs or Google should become part of the equation for those who think they stand above the rules of the community. Under no circumstance should institutions exempt students from regular academic deadlines and examination schedules.   

A petition from the University of Pennsylvania encampment pleading that there be no disciplinary action against the students shows the obvious. Whereas those who engaged in civil disobedience in the civil rights era were typically prepared to accept the consequences, the pro-Palestinian demonstrators of today expect a free pass. They should not receive it. 

Moving forward, rather than entrusting the student code of conduct to the student assembly under the gutless supervision of student life staff, a trustee committee, in consultation with those entities, must oversee the necessary revisions to maintain order. At orientation, administrative staff must then present the code of conduct to incoming students. Similarly, a trustee committee should oversee appropriate revisions to the faculty handbook, making clear the consequences for impermissible activities in protest. 

The 1967 Kalven Report, which articulates the principle of institutional neutrality, offers a powerful preventative to the blackmail tactics of the protests. Institutional neutrality, as Chancellor Diermeier explained, means that politics do not enter into decisions about the institution’s investments and portfolio. Divestment is off the table. Student and faculty demands regarding the portfolio must be, to use a favorite phrase of protesters, “non-negotiable.”  

With a commitment to the rule of law, the campus will enjoy robust debate and academic freedom, unfettered by the mob rule that now substitutes for freedom. This is a time for firmness, not demoralizing compromise that invites more such protests and signals that the adults are no longer in charge.

This article appeared on RealClearEducation on May 3, 2024.


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