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Colleges Warn Student Demonstrators: Enough

The 100-year-old annual honors convocation at the University of Michigan is typically a decorous affair, with a pipe organ accompanying golf-clap applause.

This year’s event was anything but. Protesters rose from their seats, and unfurled banners with “Free Palestine” written in red paint. They shouted, “You are funding genocide!”

Unable to continue with the ceremony, university officials cut it short, as hundreds of disappointed students and their parents stood up and walked out.

Two days after the honors convocation, the university’s president, Santa J. Ono, issued a stern rebuke: Enough.

“Like many of you, I am proud of our university’s history of protest,” he said. “But none of us should be proud of what happened on Sunday.” He announced that the school would draft a new policy to redefine what could be punished as disruptive behavior.

The University of Michigan is not alone.

After years of often loose enforcement of their own rules, some of the country’s most high-profile academic institutions are getting bolder, suspending and in some cases expelling students. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University and Brown University have recently taken swift and decisive action against student protesters, including making arrests.

And on Thursday, Columbia University hit its limit with student protesters who had set up dozens of tents on campus, sending in the New York Police Department to make arrests. The arrests followed congressional testimony on Wednesday, in which the president of Columbia, Nemat Shafik, said the school had delivered an unambiguous message to students that misconduct would not be tolerated.

College officials are driven by criticism from alumni, donors and Republican lawmakers, but in interviews they also described a gnawing sense that civility on campus has broken down.

They say that lately, some student protests have become so disruptive that they not only are interfering with their ability to provide an education, but they also have left many students, particularly Jewish ones, fearing for their safety.

Recalibrating isn’t necessarily easy, as many universities are learning. Efforts by administrators to claw back some of their authority over campus demonstrations are being met with pushback from students, faculty and civil liberties groups who say a university’s role is to foster debate — even if it’s messy, rude and disruptive — not attempt to smother it.

Campus activists said the aggressive enforcement of the student disciplinary process by universities is a new and concerning development. “This is an escalation,” said Rosy Fitzgerald of the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a nonprofit that is tracking how schools are responding to student demonstrators.

Suspensions and expulsions “didn’t used to be a tactic,” she said. “But now we’re seeing that as an immediate response.”

In her congressional testimony, Dr. Shafik revealed that 15 Columbia students have been suspended in recent weeks. She also said the school had for the first time in 50 years made the decision to ask the N.Y.P.D. to assist with protests.

Vanderbilt University issued what are believed to be the first student expulsions over protests related to the Israel-Hamas conflict. More than two dozen demonstrators stormed the university president’s office — injuring a security guard and shattering a window — and occupied it for more than 20 hours. Vanderbilt suspended every student involved in the demonstration. Three were expelled.

Student protests have a history of being disruptive and occasionally violent, from the Vietnam War era to today. Since Donald J. Trump’s election in 2016, many campuses have become especially volatile places, seeing an increase in angry demonstrations over conservative speakers, some of whom have been disinvited out of fear for their safety.

The Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel has sparked another wave of protests, which university administrators and free speech advocates say poses new challenges. In interviews, they described encountering students who were unwilling to engage with administrators when invited to do so, quick to use aggressive and sometimes physical forms of expression, and often wore masks to conceal their identities.

“When I talk to my fellow university presidents, everybody has the same experience,” said Daniel Diermeier, the chancellor of Vanderbilt. He said that experience typically involves confrontations with a small group of students, several dozen or so, who are uncompromising.

“They’re not interested in dialogue. When they are invited for dialogue, they do not participate,” Dr. Diermeier said. “They’re interested in protesting, disruption.”

“That’s different,” he added.

At Pomona College in Southern California, seven students were suspended this month after a group of demonstrators forced their way into the president’s office to protest the removal of an “apartheid wall” in support of Palestinians.

School leadership described the incident as part of a troubling pattern in which students wearing masks that covered their faces set up tents on parts of the campus in violation of Pomona policy, harassed staff and visitors on campus tours, and then refused to identify themselves when asked.

It was impossible for college officials to tell whether they were even engaging with actual Pomona students — let alone have an open conversation, said Tracy Arwari, assistant vice president for student affairs at Pomona.

“In the same way we think about anonymity in internet communications, it’s really hard to have an argument if you don’t know who you’re arguing with,” Ms. Arwari said.

But as colleges consider how to rein in the protests, they risk overreaching.

“The last six months have really tested the principles that govern speech on campus,” said Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America, a writer’s group that focuses on supporting free expression.

On one hand, schools need to have room to set rules. But, Ms. Nossel said, “There is this tension between wanting to enforce the rules and also acknowledging that college is a learning environment. You want people to be able to make mistakes without facing lifelong consequences because if you’re too heavy-handed, it can reinforce this sense of grievance.”

Students who have been subject to tough disciplinary measures have said they found the process disorienting and sudden. At Vanderbilt, the students who were suspended were barred from campus, unable to stay in their dorm rooms, according to Ezri Tyler, a sophomore gender studies major who participated in the sit-in at the president’s office.

“Students were panicked and very confused,” Ms. Tyler said, adding that the school’s procedures seemed designed to “very purposely deny students due process.” She said that her suspension was lifted and that she is now on probation for 15 months.

Dr. Diermeier said that the school had to draw a line somewhere. “This has nothing to do with free speech. That’s a red herring,” he said, adding that no one has a right to harass.

But as colleges and universities take a harder line, they are running into resistance from students, faculty and outside civil liberties groups that say they are stifling the very kind of expressive freedom academia purports to cherish.

Michigan’s draft policy on disruptive conduct, for instance, has been criticized by the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union as too vague and broad for disallowing activity like impeding the flow of foot traffic on campus and interrupting lectures or performances.

“Of course universities have a legitimate interest in prohibiting the kinds of major disruptions that completely shut down official events or make it physically impossible for speakers to communicate their message,” said Dan Korobkin, legal director of A.C.L.U. Michigan.

“But,” he added, “they cannot demand complete passivity from everyone who sets foot on campus.”

A University of Michigan spokeswoman, Colleen Mastony, said, “Our goal with the draft disruptive activity policy was to make policies clearer, ensure key terms are well defined.”

The university has solicited feedback on the draft, and Dr. Ono said in a recent letter to students and faculty that he would not “rush the development of this new policy; we will ensure all voices have an opportunity to be heard.”

At Vanderbilt, Dr. Diermeier has established an initiative, the Future of Free Speech, to promote free expression beyond college campuses. Jacob Mchangama, the head of that program, said in an interview that he had expressed his differences with Dr. Diermeier over the way the student occupation of the president’s office was handled, including when the police arrested a reporter for a local publication who was covering the event.

But, he added, the willingness of some students to push the limits of tolerable conduct necessitates a response from educators. It’s the job of professors to say, “Here are the red lines,” Mr. Mchangama said. “And that’s one of the issues that’s plaguing universities around the country.”

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