The blemish of college demonstrations


The numerous college demonstrations lately have given me a lot of mixed feelings. Having lived through the years when there were other demonstrations, I contrast how those incidents were handled with the present ones. In addition, I can’t help but feel some sadness about how our elected officials are reacting to these events.

In 1970, there were nationwide student protests that spurred mass walkouts from college and high school classrooms. The students were upset about the expansion of the Vietnam War in Cambodia. According to Wikipedia, the movement began on May 1, and increased dramatically after the killing of four students at Kent State University. At its height, over 4 million students participated. There was some violence, but overall the demonstrations were peaceful.

In their wake, public officials around the country held hearings and initiated investigations into student conduct, and issued numerous reports suggesting how universities should handle such demonstrations and emphasizing the need for better communication between administration officials and students. This was the responsible way for elected officials to act, compared with how they act today.

Rather than trying to find a consensus on how university officials should react when students stage protests, Republicans have created a partisan divide with their conduct and their rhetoric. Shortly after students at Columbia University began their protest, House Speaker Mike Johnson rushed to the campus and held a news conference, surrounded by eight other Republican members of Congress. No attempt was made to convene a bipartisan group, even though the battle against antisemitism is not a partisan issue.

The protest at Harvard University created the perfect opportunity for the dozens of Harvard alumni now serving in Congress to step forward in a united effort to offer guidance and support to the university. Jeremi Suri, a respected conservative writer, told CNN, “What we need are politicians who, despite their disagreements with liberal professors, are willing to stand up for the benefits they received from their own university education.”

Suri went on to say, “Many figures in the Republican Party have the same education, such as President George Bush, Yale alumni, but few show respect for the campus life that launched their own careers.” Members of Congress such as New York’s own Elise Stefanik want to burnish their political images by beating up on college officials instead of pushing to reform how campus demonstrations should be handled.

Aside from the partisan attempts to prove which party can better battle antisemitism, today’s college leadership is badly handicapped when it comes to handling campus outbursts. Typically, college presidents are chosen based on their academic achievements and their ability to raise money. There is often little or no discussion of whether they are capable of establishing lines of communications with their students.

Many university leaders, such as former Harvard President Claudine Gay, are paralyzed when campus conduct becomes a headache. There are many college presidents who need a crash course in today’s challenges, especially because colleges have become scapegoats for numerous Republican members of Congress and governors.

Another issue is the students at those colleges and universities. I’ve been amazed by how uninformed many protest participants are from campus to campus. Many have made demands that made no sense, and some have used antisemitic slurs even though they were Jewish. Too many of today’s college students seem to be totally unaware of the history of the tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Last but by far not least are the governors and other officials responsible for controlling the upheaval. Some governors have worked with college officials to try to find nonviolent ways to handle the protests. Others, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, sent state police to campuses to arrest protesting students, without any communication with campus officials.

In the months and years ahead, many people will write books about these demonstrations, but little will change. Publicity-minded government officials, anxious to show their law-and-order credentials, will continue to beat up on university officials along with the students. College administrators will continue to botch their responses, absent any seasoned outside help, and the current drama will no doubt be repeated again and again.

Jerry Kremer was an Assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column?