Opinion: Colleges want students to change the world, not take over the quad

Police arrest pro-Palestinian protesters who set up an encampment at the Emory campus in Atlanta on Thursday, April 25, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Police arrest pro-Palestinian protesters who set up an encampment at the Emory campus in Atlanta on Thursday, April 25, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

When high school students tour elite colleges, admissions directors stress that their campuses want applicants who follow their passions and live their principles.

For example, Emory University’s website advises would-be applicants that it seeks out students “eager to join us to make the world — in ways big and small — a better place...who have a voice and who have demonstrated an engagement with the world around them.”

While some colleges may value students willing to disrupt the status quo, they aren’t as keen on them disrupting exams or commencement.

We are seeing that play out in the protests erupting on campuses across the country over the Israel-Hamas war, some of which have become violent, triggering armed police responses and extensive media coverage. A national poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School released in April found 18-to-29-year-olds support a permanent cease-fire in Gaza by a five-to-one margin.

Emory became a national focal point when its president called in law enforcement to quell a pro-Palestinian protest on April 25 that he contended was largely outsiders.

When videos captured Emory staff and students being wrestled to the ground by Atlanta police and the Georgia State Patrol, President Gregory L. Fenves retracted his initial statement, saying, “It is clear to us now that this information was not fully accurate, and I apologize for that mischaracterization.”

“Let me be clear: I am devastated that members of our community were caught up in law enforcement activity enforcing the removal of the encampment,” he added.

On Friday, the Faculty Senate of the Emory College of Arts and Sciences approved a vote of “no confidence” in Fenves, The vote tally was 358-119. At last count, nearly 7,500 people signed a Change.org petition calling on Fenves to resign and blaming him for the “targeting, tear-gassing, rubber bullet shootings, and wrongful arrests of individuals who were peacefully exercising their right to protest. Instead of upholding the values of compassion and justice, you actively participated in the suppression of dissent and the perpetuation of violence against marginalized communities.”

An alumnus who signed the petition explained: “I am concerned by how quickly this administration chose to use violence against peaceful protesters. It’s time for Emory to follow its motto of ‘where courageous inquiry leads’ and listen to its own students.”

“These are our children. This is our community. If we aspire to be a free society, part of our process is allowing people to be heard,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. “At a university, you should be setting an example of how and creating a process, an approach where we can have passionate disagreements about something.”

In a letter to college presidents last week, Young reminded them of their commitment to open dialogue and urged restraint in bringing armed police to campus protests except as a necessary last resort.

“We haven’t even talked about that some of these kids borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to go these schools that are now thinking about expelling them,” said Young in an interview. “I think it is a kind of creeping authoritarian approach to young people.”

America appears torn about the capacity and accountability of young people. On one hand, politicians insist that even teens as old as 17 and 18 need school boards to protect them from books. Yet, those same politicians want to throw the book at college students participating in campus protests over Gaza.

Gov. Brian Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that protesters should face expulsion and suspension, saying, “I mean, people need to pay the piper. If you’ve broken the law, if you’re damaging property, if you are assaulting especially police officers, you should have harsh penalties. Send a message: we are not going to allow Georgia to become the next Columbia University.”

Kemp ought to consider that Columbia may not want to become the next Georgia.

The state has a dubious record in its treatment of student protesters during the Civil Rights Movement, one even Kemp couldn’t defend. In 1963, Black students attempted to integrate the Broad Street lunch counters in Rome, Georgia, by sitting and opening books, leading employees to pour soapy water on them to force them to leave, adding ammonia to the water as an irritant, according to firsthand accounts by the students.

The Rome students endured threats from white patrons including young men loudly saying, “If we kill about two or three of them, they’ll stop.” As the police came and arrested the students, another group would show up to take their place. By the day’s end, police arrested and jailed 62 students, most of whom were convicted of crimes for their protest.

Students are proven catalysts of change and innovation, though often riling adults with their impatience and their untrammeled energy. When Atlanta University Center students formed the Atlanta Student Movement in 1960 to dismantle segregation, they ran into resistance from the worried presidents of the colleges.

“They felt we didn’t come here to save the world, we came here to get an education,” recalled the late Lonnie King, who, as a Morehouse student in the late 1950s, cofounded the Atlanta Student Movement and often spoke about his experiences as a young protester before his death in 2019.

As with today’s campus protesters, the students didn’t listen to their elders. They marched, boycotted and changed history.