College Protest Response: The Good, Bad, & Ugly

Contrasting responses to pro-Hamas protests on campus

Amid a wave of pro-Hamas protests that erupted on college campuses this spring, universities across the nation grappled with how to address the demonstrations while upholding principles of free speech and safety for all students. Some institutions were exemplary in their reaction — others, not so much…


Columbia University was ground-zero for aggressive pro-Hamas protests. A three-week fiasco, the Columbia administration was paralyzed in the face of increasingly disorderly conduct, allowing for weeks of ongoing protests even after the students took over the campus’s famed Hamilton Hall, barricaded the entrances, and hung a banner from the window saying, “Free Palestine.” Students held the school hostage, issuing a list of wild demands that included a “complete divestment” from all Israel-related investments and amnesty from disciplinary actions for protesting students. Columbia’s pushback? An email saying that bringing back police “at this time” would be counterproductive. Things got so hot that Columbia ended up canceling its university-wide commencement ceremony.

Harvard University pursued a more “inclusive” approach to the chaos. Student agitators made a mess of the Harvard campus, pushing their agenda for more than three weeks until the Ivy League school’s president Alan Garber and university officials agreed to meet with them to discuss the students’ demands that the university cut ties with Israel and businesses that support Israel. Harvard was already facing backlash after not condemning its student groups with statements claiming that Israel was “entirely responsible” for the brutal Hamas attacks on the country. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, also a Harvard Law School graduate, wrote on X, “What the Hell is wrong with Harvard? Given the choice between standing with Israel or supporting terrorists who are raping, kidnapping & killing thousands of women & children…31 student groups choose the terrorists. Their blazing hatred & antisemitism utterly blinding.”

Cornell University found itself on the receiving end of a letter from Congress criticizing their handling of the protests, asserting that “antisemitism remains a serious problem” at the school. They weren’t exaggerating: numerous students expressed concerns over the protests, citing feelings of insecurity and the fostering of antisemitic sentiment on campus. In the midst of heated campus discussions regarding antisemitism and demonstrations concerning the Israel-Hamas conflict Cornell president Martha E. Pollack announced she would be stepping down.



University of Chicago president Paul Alivisatos pushed back with a robust statement declaring an end to spiraling protests on campus and reasserting the school’s stated values. “Free expression is the core animating value of the University of Chicago, so it is critical that we be clear about how I and my administration think about the issue of encampments, how the actions we take in response will follow directly from our principles, and specific considerations that will influence our judgments and actions. The general principle we will abide by is to provide the greatest leeway possible for free expression, even expression of viewpoints that some find deeply offensive. We only will intervene when what might have been an exercise of free expression blocks the learning or expression of others or that substantially disrupts the functioning or safety of the University. These are our principles. They are clear.” Alivisatos came out with a follow-up saying, “I believe the protesters should also consider that an encampment, with all the etymological connections of the word to military origins, is a way of using force of a kind rather than reason to persuade others…those violating university policy should expect to face disciplinary consequences.” And they did.

University of Florida took a tough approach and condemned campus agitators, telling them they would face legal consequences for actions that cross the line from speech into violence. The demonstrations baffled university president Ben Sasse, who said, “We support folks’ free-speech rights, but that includes the right to make an a– and an idiot of yourself, and a lot of the protesters say ridiculously, historically and geographically ignorant things.” Sasse continued: “This is not complicated: The University of Florida is not a daycare, and we do not treat protesters like children. They knew the rules, they broke the rules, and they’ll face the consequences.”

University of Texas at Austin adopted a firm approach toward protesting students and faculty alike. Pro-Palestine activists were adamant in their demands, which included the resignation UT Austin president Jay Hartzell. As UT Austin is a public university, Texas Governor Greg Abbott stepped in and responded, saying, “This will NEVER happen. The only thing that will happen is that the University and the State will use all law-enforcement tools to quickly terminate illegal protests taking place on campus that clearly violate the laws of the state of Texas and policies of the university.” In just one week, law enforcement cracked down on the law-breakers, apprehending over 100 protesters for offenses that included criminal trespassing and violations of university regulations.

The differing approaches universities took to this heated moment highlight the principle of upholding free speech but also the importance of having a clear policy showing where to draw the line. The institutions of higher education that handled the protests best are the ones that upheld their stated rules and values. That’s not a coincidence.




[Photo credit: Jane Dominguez, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED, via Flickr (cropped)]