campus beat

Universities make concessions to anti-Israel campus activists

Many campus leaders are now conceding it is easier to give in to protesters than to stand firm against their rule-breaking

Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu via Getty Images

Students and residents camp outside Northwestern University during a pro-Palestinian protest, expressing solidarity with Palestinians with banners in Evanston, Illinois, United States on April 27, 2024.

It’s spring in Cambridge, Mass. — graduation season — which means that large white tents have started to appear on the leafy quads throughout Harvard Square. 

Until Tuesday, a different kind of tent was still visible in Harvard Yard: small camping tents housing the stragglers who remained in Harvard’s anti-Israel encampment even after final exams wrapped up several days ago. Last week, Harvard suspended student protesters who refused to abide by campus administrators’ orders to disband the encampment, blocking access to their dorms. 

But now, just a week from the start of official university commencement festivities, Harvard has backtracked on its disciplinary action, ahead of the arrival next week of thousands of graduates’ family members, alumni and honorary degree recipients to the Ivy League university. University officials seemed to be saying that Harvard cannot get ready for commencement if Harvard Yard is still gated and locked, accessible only to university affiliates and the handful of people still camped out in protest of Harvard’s alleged “complicity in genocide.” 

In making a deal with the protesters, Harvard interim President Alan Garber joined a growing number of leaders at elite universities who are incorporating protesters’ voices into major university investment decisions and allowing student activists to get off with few, if any, repercussions after weeks of disciplinary violations. Harvard’s dean of the faculty of arts and sciences wrote in a Tuesday email that the outcome “deepened” the university’s “commitment to dialogue and to strengthening the bonds that pull us together as a community.” 

The path Garber took is now a well-trodden one — remove the threat of disciplinary consequences and allow protesters to meet with university trustees or other senior leaders to pitch them on divesting their schools’ endowments from Israeli businesses, a concession that before last month would have been unthinkable at America’s top universities. 

In a matter of days it has become commonplace. Just two years ago, Harvard’s then-president, Lawrence Bacow, responded to the campus newspaper’s endorsement of a boycott of Israel by saying that “any suggestion of targeting or boycotting a particular group because of disagreements over the policies pursued by their governments is antithetical to what we stand for as a university.” 

Northwestern University set the tone two weeks ago when President Michael Schill reached an agreement with anti-Israel protesters in exchange for them ending their encampment. Jewish leaders on campus found the agreement so problematic that the seven Jewish members of the university’s antisemitism committee — including Northwestern’s Hillel director, several faculty members and a student — stepped down in protest. Lily Cohen, a Northwestern senior who resigned from the committee, summed up their concerns: “It appears as though breaking the rules gets you somewhere, and trying to do things respectfully and by the books does not.” 

Her observation has proven prescient as universities negotiate with anti-Israel protesters who break campus rules while they slow-walk reforms long sought by Jewish students — or even avoid meeting with Jewish community members altogether. 

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone signed onto a far-reaching agreement with protesters this week that calls for a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, condemns “genocide” and denounces “scholasticide” in Gaza and cuts off ties between a university-affiliated environmental NGO and two government-owned Israeli water companies. Meanwhile, Hillel Milwaukee said in a statement that Mone has refused to meet with Jewish students since Oct. 7. Where universities fumbled over statements addressing the Oct. 7 attacks last fall in failed bids to satisfy everyone, many campus leaders have now conceded it is easier to give in to protesters than to stand firm against their rule-breaking. (The president of the University of Wisconsin system said he is “disappointed” by UWM’s actions.) 

Princeton University and Johns Hopkins University made concessions to encampment leaders this week. At Johns Hopkins, the school pledged to undertake a “timely review” of the matter of divestment, and to conclude student conduct proceedings related to the encampment. Hopkins Justice Collective, the group that organized the protests, characterized the agreement as “a step towards Johns Hopkins’ commitment to divest from the settler colonial state of Israel.” 

In a campus-wide email on Monday, Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber said all students must vacate the campus quad where they had organized an anti-Israel encampment. He offered the campus protest leaders an audience with the body that reviews petitions for divestment. Other student groups can also petition for a meeting, he wrote.

Students who were arrested during the course of the protests may have a chance to take part in a so-called “restorative justice” process, whereby the university “would work to minimize the impact of the arrest on the participating students.” If protesters take responsibility for their actions, Eisgruber wrote, the school will conclude all disciplinary processes and allow the protesters to graduate this month. 

At many more universities, top administrators — including university presidents — have met with demonstrators, giving them a chance to air their concerns even when they didn’t reach an agreement. University of Chicago administrators held several days of negotiations with encampment leaders before the talks fell apart and police cleared the protesters. The George Washington University President Ellen Granberg met over the weekend with student protesters who lectured her about “structural inequality” at GW and likened the university’s code of conduct to slavery and Jim Crow-era segregation, according to a video recording of the meeting.

College administrators’ negotiations to end the protests might bring a wave of good headlines and promises of quiet at campus commencements, the largest and most high-profile event of the year for most universities. But students haven’t said what they’ll do when school is back in session next year. 
By promising meetings with university investment committees, the administrators are almost certainly guaranteeing that campus angst over the war in Gaza will not die down. Brown University President Christina Paxson pledged that protest leaders can meet with the university’s governing body to discuss divestment from companies that operate in Israel — in October, a year after the Hamas attacks that killed more than 1,200 people and ignited the ongoing bloodshed in the Middle East.

Correction: This article was updated to more accurately reflect negotiations between Princeton’s president and the protesters.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.