Repression draws attention to campus protests, like those over the conflict in Gaza, and makes them grow

Here’s What Universities Always Get Wrong about Student Protests

Repression draws attention to campus protests and makes them grow

Three (3) law enforcement officers hold a protestor on the ground in a face down position as the officers bind the student’s hands behind their back with zipties

State troopers and university police arrest a protestor at the University of Texas in Austin on April 29, 2024.

Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images

As protests of the war in Gaza have erupted on university campuses over the past few weeks, we see once again the idealism, dedication and energy that young people bring to the causes they care about. Although there is nothing new about student activism, every time it appears on campuses with a fresh generation, it brings an exhilarating vibrancy. In the 1950s students protested against the rising tide of McCarthyism and its threats to free expression. In the 1960s students brought civil rights, the women’s movement, and the anti–Vietnam War movement to campuses. The 1980s witnessed a wave of anti-apartheid protests, including the spread of “shantytowns” as a tactic, and in the 1990s students protested their universities’ affiliations with clothing retailers, like Nike, that employed sweatshop labor in their supply chains. More recently, campuses have been awash with activism related to fighting climate change and supporting Black Lives Matter.

It makes sense that campuses seethe with protest. Universities and colleges give students a “liberal” education focused on critical thinking, broadening their perspectives and emphasizing the importance of ideas in our lives. And as research on activism has demonstrated, young people simply have more time, energy and flexibility to dedicate to activism, especially when compared to their slightly older, full-time employed peers. Campuses are designed for the discussion of ideas and include places, like open plazas, where students can gather for extracurricular activities. And for protest. Campuses are laboratories for innovative thinking and experimentation with new perspectives. They ostensibly promote free expression. Naturally students are often on the cutting edge of social movements.

And yet every generation of administrators fumbles in dealing with student activists. Despite history abounding with what past administrations did to quell the impact of activism on campus and the consequences—positive and negative—every time there is a new wave of activism, it’s as if administrations are facing protests for the first time. Student protestors, in contrast, seem to get more organized, more savvy and better prepared for what administrations throw at them with each successive generation.

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There are good reasons why. Despite each new student cohort being quite young and inexperienced, networks of activists exist that link ideologically aligned students across campuses. Activists have refined campus protest tactics over time, learning from what worked in the past and creating plans that can be easily transported across time and location. It’s not coincidental that the tent cities of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s look similar in form and function to the encampments springing up recently. Activism from the past gets stored in collective memory, often through written records and routinized in social movement organizations and passed to the next generation.

Of course, student activists can turn to their faculty, who were once young protestors themselves and who are willing to mentor and support student activism as it takes shape. Not surprisingly, in the recent protests a handful of faculty can usually be seen at the side of their students, sometimes forming protective shields when police threaten to intervene and try to remove the encampments. Those faculty didn’t just show up randomly. They are proof of the deep level of organizing and coordination that goes into carrying out these campus campaigns.

And this is what administrators often get wrong about student protests. They incorrectly assume that student protestors are passionate but disorganized and that the protests erupt like mobs reacting to events going on around them. With this mindset it is easy to underestimate the students’ preparedness, their resolve and ability to respond to administrative attempts to break up protests. Administrators are often overconfident in their ability to enforce rules about what counts as legitimate protest and fail to see how attempts to police protest only further mobilize students. They also fail to comprehend how willing police are to instigate violence, leading to injuries. This miscalculated attempt to repress protests usually adds fuel to the fire, partly because it enrages students who weren’t previously involved in the protest and who see policing as an injustice and violation of their understanding of what kinds of free expression are permitted and even encouraged. Repression may escalate otherwise nonviolent protests into violent interactions, usually at the hands of the very police supposedly sent in to maintain peace.

But the other reason it further escalates protests is because it brings more attention to them. Attention is activist fuel. The more attention that a protest gets, the easier it is to get other people to participate and the greater pressure they can exert on their targets—the very administration that is trying to stop them. As social movement scholars like myself have found in numerous studies, attention is the resource that gives activists their leverage in getting what they want.

Generation after generation, student protestors use attention as a means to mobilize others to their cause and pressure administrations to engage their causes. And yet, generation after generation, administrators seem to forget this and resort to the same repressive responses. Although clearly not every administration has responded the same way, we can see the same pattern emerging in the current wave of antiwar protests. Columbia, Emory, the University of Texas and the University of Connecticut are just a handful of campuses where administrators have responded with force and arrests. In none of these cases did repression end the protests. Instead, repression led to widespread disapproval of the administration among faculty and students on the sidelines. Students have since showed up in greater numbers. In Austin, at the University of Texas, students marched back onto campus just hours after being removed by police. Repression isn’t working.

This pattern of protest and administrative repression isn’t new. One has only to look back to campus reactions to student protests in the 1960s to see how harsh policing of protests contributed to the removal of chancellors and university presidents who seemed incapable of quelling unrest. Now, as then, members of the faculty revolt and issue no-confidence votes. Donors and trustees lose faith in administrations’ ability to lead. Administrators often find themselves with few supporters on either side of the protests.

As a scholar of movements and as a faculty member of one of the universities where antiwar protests have emerged, I get why administrators’ first instinct is to respond through rule enforcement and punishment. They’re facing a complex set of pressures themselves, and they may feel cornered by students who are unwilling to compromise. But the history of campus activism has taught us that repressive responses usually just add fuel to the fire and increase the leverage that student protestors have. Administrators who act with restraint and give protests time and space to engage, and listen to others, are more likely to find themselves in a place where productive dialogue can take place on campus. Given our ideals of a liberal education and free expression, productive dialogue seems like the outcome we should all strive for.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American

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