May 3, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Where college negotiations ended campus protest chaos

Students at Brown University take down tents after agreeing to dismantle an encampment on Tuesday.

Students at Brown University take down tents after agreeing to dismantle an encampment on Tuesday. Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

Deals between four universities and pro-Palestinian protesters offer a rough roadmap for schools seeking to defuse tensions and shut down encampments before commencement.

Why it matters: About 2,000 people have been arrested in a coast-to-coast wave of protests on scores of campuses. But administrators at Northwestern, Brown, Rutgers and the University of Minnesota found diplomatic alternatives to police force.

Zoom in: The agreements that pushed protesters to take down their tents share key traits. They avoid sweeping and immediate changes to university investments in favor of scholarships and expanded academic programs.

1. None of the four schools agreed to divest from companies that do business in Israel or aid the country's war effort, a key demand at schools across the country. All agreed to less concrete concessions around their endowments.

  • Northwestern promised additional transparency. Brown's board will hold a vote on a divestment proposal in the fall. Rutgers said it would review protester demands. Minnesota protesters will address the school's board.

2. Two of the agreementsNorthwestern and Rutgers — include scholarships or aid for Palestinian students. They also promise to provide improved space for Muslim students.

  • Rutgers said it would expand an existing relationship with a university in the West Bank.
  • Minnesota told protesters it could explore an affiliation with a Palestinian university.

3. The agreements provide some level of amnesty for students involved in encampments.

  • Brown and Rutgers said they wouldn't retaliate against protesters. Both schools — in matching language — added that they'd still investigate reports of bias, harassment or discrimination.
  • Minnesota asked its police department not to arrest or charge anyone "based on the past few days."
  • Northwestern agreed to allow one tent to remain for student protesters to use if they comply with the agreement.

The big picture: The Brown deal — where the school agreed to a vote, but not divestment itself — was a perfect compromise, said Frederick Lawrence, a lecturer at Georgetown and former president of Brandeis University.

  • "I think it's a perfectly appropriate thing for the university to be prepared to do," he said. "I don't think the university has made a commitment of a result one way or the other."
  • The compromise is a part of building trust between the administration and student groups, Lawrence said. "The truth is, the real work that makes a difference in moments like this typically [takes] place days, weeks and sometimes years ahead."

State of play: The nationwide demonstrations, which in some cases have included breaching school buildings, have been met with police force, arrests, suspensions and threats of expulsion.

  • "Nobody can possibly think that bringing law enforcement in riot gear is a good outcome," Lawrence said.
  • "Even people who can think it was necessary aren't going to think it was good. So avoiding things like this in the future has got to be a goal that everybody shares."

Reality check: Protesters at different schools have different demands. Students and administrators have to be willing to meet somewhere in the middle.

  • The president of Columbia University, which has become the epicenter of the nationwide protests, said earlier this week that the Ivy League school "will not divest from Israel" after negotiations with student protesters stalled.

Between the lines: A spokesperson for Brown told Axios that divestment may not be as simple as students think, saying that the university doesn't invest directly in stocks but instead relies on "external specialist investment managers."

  • Charlie Eaton, a sociology professor at the University of California, Merced, who studies endowments, told Axios that "it'll benefit universities in the long run to develop consensus among their campus community about what the values [are] and how do you apply them to your investments."

Go deeper: Endowment secrecy complicates campus "divestment" demands

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