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Elite universities bear responsibility for Palestine protests

Students protest at Brown University this week. Credit: Getty

April 30, 2024 - 7:00pm

Elite US universities are reeling from anti-Israel protests, with suspensions and arrests unfolding across the country. But it could well be argued that these schools have actually incentivised radicalism, including through their own admissions processes.

Columbia protesters who destroyed glass windows and physically confronted a student attempting to block an entrance while taking over a campus building on Monday night were merely reenacting moments from the Ivy League school’s history of unruly demonstrations, which administrators continue to discuss with reverence even as protests run out of control and derail the semester.

In 1968, Columbia protesters occupied several university buildings and engaged in a week-long standoff with police which ended with 700 arrests. It’s a core piece of the school’s identity and ethos, and Columbia’s current leadership takes an obvious sense of pride in that historical moment. Earlier this month, when chaotic protests were already well underway, the university’s president wrote: “Protests have a storied history at Columbia and are an essential component of free speech in America and on our campus.”

The current unrest on American campuses has its roots in a university culture that teaches and rewards radicalism. An anti-Israel student protest leader at the University of Michigan previously won an award from the school for “exemplify[ing] the leadership and extraordinary vision of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr”.

One first-year student at Vanderbilt University, having been suspended for shoving a staff member while breaking into a campus building as part of a protest last month, complained of a double standard. The school had previously granted him a scholarship for his essay on high-school walkouts in protest of Ron DeSantis’s supposedly anti-LGBT policies. “Vanderbilt seemed to love that,” he said, according to the AP. “Unfortunately, the buck stops when you start advocating for Palestinian liberation.”

The same AP story mentioned a student at Columbia who believed her arrest was the worst penalty she’d receive for her role in the unruly protests — until she learned she would be suspended, which could follow her for life through her student record. It’s a common theme from student protesters now facing penalties from their schools: a feeling of betrayal that the activist spirit universities once rewarded is not always welcome on campus.

Activism can bolster high-achieving students’ social and academic standing, including through lucrative fellowships. An organisation funded by Left-wing billionaire George Soros, for example, has been paying student activists $3,000 per three-month term to pressure politicians and government entities to cut financial ties with Israel. A job listing for the fellowship asks that applicants be “committed to an abolitionist vision of the future, in which Palestinian people, Black people, brown people, Indigenous people, LGBTQIA+ people, disabled people, immigrants, women, non-binary folks, and all people are free”.

For students passing through elite universities in this climate, and learning at the feet of professors who themselves are supportive of or involved in the protests, disciplinary measures from campus administers likely come as a genuine surprise. For some, activism is what landed them in the Ivy League to begin with.

Top universities make a point of prompting students to discuss their activist aspirations and social justice principles in applications, and those with backgrounds in activism frequently appear to have an advantage over other students.

David Hogg, a former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of a 2018 mass shooting, gained entry to Harvard despite academic credentials considerably lower than those typical of a student admitted to the university. This came after he rose to national fame for anti-gun activism.

But one needn’t be a famous activist to game the college admissions process. Stanford University has a 4% acceptance rate, but in 2017 the school admitted a student whose application essay simply recited “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times.

Universities go out of their way to encourage and select for student activism in their admissions processes. The Common App, an application shared by hundreds of universities including all Ivy League schools, prompts students to “reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea… What was the outcome?” So ubiquitous is the social justice and DEI essay prompt for college admissions that it’s sprung up a cottage industry for helping students give precisely the answers administrators are looking for.

Since the Supreme Court blocked affirmative action in college admissions last year, schools have begun using the essay portion of applications as an opportunity for students to highlight their race and ethnicity. For applicants without minority status, the pressure to present oneself as an ally of progressive causes and an agent for change is all the more potent. When these students, encouraged to be activists throughout their academic careers, become campus radicals, the universities only have themselves to blame.


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.

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Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago

I was a young socialist activist in the late 80s. I got over it and am now a Libertarian Conservative. Thanks to Thomas Sowell.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
20 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

You will probably know the interview (easily to be found on the internet, on YouTube, for example) in which Thomas Sowell says that he was for many years a convinced Marxist.
Interviewer: ‘What changed your mind?’
Sowell: ‘Facts.’

Victor James
Victor James
20 days ago

Change the people, change the culture. The far-left fascists who stink out the high-offices of the universities have to go. They wasn’t always in power, so people should stop treating them as if they are eternal.
There’s no dignity in accepting the leftist dominion of the universities. It’s an unacceptable stain on all Western nations.

William Brand
William Brand
20 days ago

Johnson tried to draft members of the elite for a war of choice. Cowards developed noble reasons not to serve and hid in college. Proof of elite status was not being drafted. The 1960 draft dodger became a professor who picked people like him to be members of the ruling elite. The activist does not realize that what looks good at 18 is remembered at 40 as treason.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
20 days ago
Reply to  William Brand

Ignore anyone who advocated a military intervention unless you could imagine that person as an 18-year-old in battle. The call for war always comes primarily from the liberal bourgeoisie. That is the class least likely to join the Armed Forces voluntarily, or to see combat even in periods of conscription. Operationally, that is of course just as well. But if there is not a strong enough case for conscription, then there is not a strong enough case for war. Unless a country needed to mobilise its entire healthy and able-bodied male population of fighting age, then it is not under sufficient threat to justify going to war at all.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
20 days ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

To those who have voted down, I would be interested to read your reasoning, please.

Dick Barrett
Dick Barrett
20 days ago

In this instance, elite universities have not created an activist generation. Israel’s recent behaviour has created a reaction analogous to that of South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Students have often been to the fore in these struggles, and if they are being elitist, then three cheers for elitism.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
19 days ago
Reply to  Dick Barrett

If that were true of Israel, why do over two million Arab Muslims live there?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
20 days ago

Is it really a protest when the whole thing has been promoted and endorsed by the institutions? None of these snowflakes are a threat to the ruling order. It’s performance art by privileged children. They might get arrested tomorrow, only because they have embarrassed their schools. All will be forgiven and forgotten in a week.

We know what happens when protestors are perceived as a real threat. They get stomped on by horses like the truckers did in Canada.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
20 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

“It’s performance art by privileged children”

All these social activist revolutions are paler imitations of the ones before, performed by more and more privileged and out-of-touch wannabees. The 60’s student riots in Paris (harking back to the original French revolution) amounted to little more than juvenile, middle-class talking shops.

Since then, it’s been a case of diminishing returns; more noise, less nouse and all paid for by a billionaire no less who’s far more a source of many of society’s problems than any of these ‘instant causes’.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
19 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

And it’s all paid for by the world’s worst. Qatar doesn’t send billions to these schools for nothing, nor does China. And George Soros gleefully funds mayhem to satisfy whatever is left of his twisted soul.
The campus imbeciles repeating the laughable bullhorn chants and locking arms like they’re a mighty and righteous army of warriors will soon discover real world consequences. Good.

Cantab Man
Cantab Man
19 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Indeed.
History is replete with evidence of the privileged draping themselves in the saintly robes of victimhood…even as they ‘grind the faces of the poor’ while they, themselves, are catapulted to the heights of predestined fame, money and power by using the coded-and-predefined victimhood language of the already-powerful who engineered their rise.
The real victims of privilege typically don’t have a voice in their day. They are silenced by their privileged peers who see them as a real or imagined threat. Victims aren’t redeemed and popularized for years, decades or even centuries. Only when they are no longer a threat to the privileged are their life-stories redeemed by the next generation of the privileged for their own selfish use…often when the real victim is already buried in the cold, hard dirt.
Academia and universities in the US are merely one example of this trend. Because of their wealth, status and power, they create full-scale fantasies on campus (much like Disneyland) in which they and their students can live ‘their truth’ as victims-turned-heroes complete with embroidered superman capes. The hope is that their customers (i.e. the students) will gain an additional advantage in opportunities and employment with their knighted and benighted victimhood status.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
19 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

“performance art by privileged children”
What a great, accurate line! And sadly true for a lot of the “activism” we see in western society these days.

Caro
Caro
19 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

FYI eyewitness this week https://substack.com/@adamtooze – brawn not horseflesh the problem?

Victor James
Victor James
20 days ago

The status quo is wrong. Everyone knows it. But power is never given.

All three statements are facts. The fascist left took took power(not the liberal left). If we don’t take power, we have no power. And by we, I mean anyone who isn’t ‘woke’
which is just a popular term for the fascist left.

A D Kent
A D Kent
20 days ago

Oh FFS Unherd, make it stop. Yet another piece centering the supposedly outrageous university protests. People protesting about the massacre of civilians continues to exercise you more than that massacre itself. Do you understand how utterly depraved that is?

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
20 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

And is this not supposed to be a British publication? If Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were to be filmed again, then the Oompa Loompas might very well be British, or at least d**k Van d**e Cockney. Hollywood initially made them a caricature of Hispanics, probably without even thinking about it, while early illustrations of the book made it clear that Roald Dahl himself saw them as African Pygmies. But either way, they were coolies from the Empire. And Britain is now Loompaland. Our American overlords do not fancy going ashore in Gaza, so we have to do it, because that is what we are for.

We already had people delivering aid, military veterans whose faces matched their WASP names and who, as is quite normal, were also working as intelligence operatives, competently fulfilling both tasks. The Israelis murdered them, faithful to the spirit of the King David Hotel bombing, of the Sergeants’ affair, of the attempted assassinations of Winston Churchill and Ernest Bevin, of Menachem Begin’s explicitly vengeful arming of Argentina during the Falklands War, and so on. The Americans understandably do not fancy the USS Liberty treatment from the land of Jonathan Pollard and from the heirs of those who sent letter bombs to the Truman White House. But even so.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
20 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

My reply to you has vanished.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
20 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Maybe they should be out there marching for the release of hostages. That might even end the war. But carry on, Hamas has no agency here. Hapless victims all of them.

Dengie Dave
Dengie Dave
20 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Unherd is right to report this. here’s a little of what’s going on at Columbia.As part of “peace” negotiations university president Minouche Shafik said she would “pursue” scholarships for Gazans to appease protesters. She also said protesters identifying their role – ie removing face coverings – would avoid suspension and “be eligible to complete the semester in good standing.” That act of further appeasement was turned down. Meanwhile a keffiyeh-clad protester walks round with sign pointing at a group of Jewish students with the caption “Al-Qasam’s [sic] Next Targets,” a reference to the Hamas military wing that carried out the Oct 7. Meanwhile a visiting professor appointed in January this year with a “warm welcome” was on record saying earlier of Oct 7 that he was “with the muqawamah (the resistance) be it Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.” This professor is an encampment regular and, Minouche says, still grading papers. Meanwhile in her congressional testimony President Shafik said another professor who praised Oct 7 as “incredible” and “awesome” has been “spoken to.” Imagine if that had been the response to someone lauding the KKK. This goes beyond appeasement. Columbia is a breeding ground for the bacteria of support for terrorism. 

A D Kent
A D Kent
19 days ago
Reply to  Dengie Dave

That Al-Qasam picture was taken in the strangest of circumstances – no one of the apparently offended challenged them, it was pointed, they took the picture and then left. Almost certainly staged, like so many of these little teacup storms – meanwhile people re being found in mass graves in Gaza and Palestinians detailed by the Israelis are having to have amputations due to their restraints. You carry on though.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
18 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Yes, if only Hamas would release the hostages they could end this war tonight.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
20 days ago

The protestors against the Iraq War were told that they were ignorant children, but they were expressing the view of 90 per cent of the British population, and these days try finding anyone who will admit to having supported that war.

Keir Starmer supports the starvation of Gaza, so the IDF would be acting on his advice if it were to bomb British troops who were delivering aid. The Americans know that, which is why they will not do it. Yet they expect us to do it instead, as we are preparing to do, even though the IDF recently carried out the clinically targeted murder of three British aid workers, military veterans all, using a weapon that Britain had supplied and continues to supply.

The USS Liberty incident was 57 years ago, although its institutional memory does seem to linger, and rightly so. Our USS Liberty incident was this month, and it was carried out pursuant to the policy of our Labour Party. As in 1967, the official line is designed to humiliate those parroting it, thereby asserting Israeli dominance over them. By such are we governed, and by such are they Officially Opposed.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
20 days ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

I’m still trying to fathom how with $19 billion of development aid given to Hamas, most of which we now know was squandered on weapons and tunnels, they couldn’t have spared some cash for their civilian population. Especially as they knew Israel had no option but to retaliate once Hamas broke the ceasefire in such a typically barbaric cowardly manner. It’s almost as if they relished the martyrdom of their own people, while they crouched in their holes lapping up the adulation of the Lefty bourgeoisie! Go figure


Dengie Dave
Dengie Dave
20 days ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

It’s actually Hamas that wants Gazans to starve. UN has confirmed that terrorists fired mortars on the pier being built by US to bring aid. A Hamas official told The Associated Press it will resist any foreign military presence involved with the port project. The PFLP has warned that the US, UK and any other countries deploying troops to deliver humanitarian aid in Gaza “will be dealt with as an occupying force and will become legitimate targets of the resistance.” Can you tell me why they would do this if they truly care about feeding their people?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
20 days ago

Mmm, difficult one.
That student activism is admired and even incentivised by the US university system isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Politicians and leaders who have been formed in a vibrant student political scene make for a dynamic national political and economic landscape later on. It’s part of what makes the US so special and successful.
But there’s something about these protests – the reports of the participants not really being informed of what they are protesting and disrupting for – that corrupts the protest culture of which the universities are proud. They seem only to be protests on a very superficial level – underneath it’s a mob of bored, entitled social-media obsessed and shallow young people desperate to find some meaning in their lives.
Proper activism is energy + emotion + knowledge. These protests seem to lack knowledge.
I argue that these “protests” have a driving force that has nothing to do with Gaza at all. Gen Z – criticise them as we might – are growing up in a pretty dismal world. Millennials are gloomy because we were promised a bright future that crumbled; Gen Z never even had that promise. That despair is a ticking time bomb, ready to well up and spill over into unrest if a convenient vehicle (here: Gaza) presents itself.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
19 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

While all of what you write may be true, I think you are overlooking an important ingredient. These students (because of their ignorance) are being used. Look at who is funding them, and what the agenda of those funders is. Not pretty. You are right, it has nothing to do with Gaza, but it is not just unfocused Gen Z ennui. The focus is chosen by the funders, a bunch of new-Marxists and jihadists, who are aiming the students at Israel.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
18 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

It’s perfectly healthy for the young to challenge established ideas. The problem arises when the “challenge” only moves in one direction, and when it only attacks a certain range of unfashionable, pre-approved targets (patriotism, secure borders, academic rigour, capitalism, meritocracy, free speech for conservatives, the right of Israel to exist, etc.).
This is actually no challenge at all. As others have observed, it’s merely performance art by the children of the “progressive” Establishment. In a sense, therefore, it’s the very embodiment of cultural conformity.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
20 days ago

If one needs to study a technical subject to an advanced level – quantum mechanics for example, or pure mathematics, I suppose one must go to university to do it. Otherwise it seems to be a complete waste of time and money.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
19 days ago

What’s so terrible about these protests? Is the Israeli regime too sensitive, too privileged, too afraid to face criticism? The kids are alright! And they have not only a right but a duty to shove this in the face of the American establishment. Israel’s leaders have been playing the American people for fools for much too long.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
18 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

The ‘kids’ (let’s not forget that these are people in their late teens and early twenties) are being manipulated by billionaire agitators that hate Israel. These students risk loss of education and future livelihood for a cause that calls for the extermination of Jews. Israel may have outsized influence in US politics, but there are other ways to deal with this than engaging in mass murder.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
18 days ago

One of the more depressing aspects of this piece is the confirmation (as if we didn’t know) that Ivy League institutions are uniformly, universally, ineluctably and monochromatically Left-wing.

Allow me a question, as a naive Brit. (And we have this problem too.) What should students, professors, or applicants do if they commit the monstrous crime of being on the Right or Centre-right? Where are they supposed to work and/or study?

James S.
James S.
13 days ago
Reply to  Damon Hager

Avoid the Ivies and Stanford like the plague, and find colleges that actually believe in a sound education, not far-left indoctrination. That’s what right and center-right students should do. Those schools are out there (Hillsdale College springs to mind). They and their parents will probably save some money, and get a real education.

William Brand
William Brand
16 days ago

The golden youth were selected for their WOKE ideology and have always been rewarded for it. Now their behavior threatens the ruling establishment, and they are being punished for it.