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How some faculty members are defending student protesters, in actions and in words

Columbia University faculty and staff gather on the campus in solidarity with student protesters on Monday.
Stefan Jeremiah
Columbia University faculty and staff gather on the campus in solidarity with student protesters on Monday.

Sarah Phillips was on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington for meetings Saturday when she saw social media posts calling for help protecting students' free speech rights.

When Phillips, an anthropology professor at IU, arrived at the site of the campus protest she recognized some of her students, "completely peaceful," standing face-to-face with what she described as heavily armed riot police. Reflexively, she started walking toward them.

"My instincts just kicked in," she told NPR on Monday. "And a few moments later, I found myself on the ground, handcuffed and being marched with some students and other faculty to a bus that was ready to take us away to the local jail."

The students were protesting at Dunn Meadow, a university-designated assembly area since 1969 and the site of an encampment that the school administration banned in a widely criticized last-minute policy change.

A few days earlier, on Thursday, Indiana state and university police had arrested 33 people as they tried to disperse the crowd. Protesters quickly regrouped, and Phillips was alarmed to hear on Saturday that armed police were once again gathering at the park.

She was one of four faculty members and 19 students arrested that day alone — among the hundreds of people who have been arrested at pro-Palestinian campus protests across the country in the last two weeks.

Demonstrators at Indiana, as in many other states, are calling for a cease-fire in Gaza and an end to both university investment in Israeli-affiliated companies and its partnership with a nearby U.S. Navy installation.

And professors are increasingly standing with students, in what many describe as an effort to safeguard the students' right to protest.

"As a faculty member who cares about freedom of speech — who sees freedom of speech as the bedrock of democracy and really as the foundation for a public education — I see it as my responsibility to speak up when I see harm being done to students and their rights being violated," Phillips said. "And if my voice isn't enough, then I'm going to have to speak up, so to say, for them in other ways."

Most of the people arrested on Saturday, including Phillips, were hit with the misdemeanor charge of criminal trespass. All were also handed slips of paper by university police banning them from school property for one year (with the exception of one organizer who was banned for five years).

The administration later said that students and faculty who were arrested can appeal their trespass warnings with university police, and will be allowed on campus to finish the semester while that process is underway.

Phillips plans to do so. But, she says, this last week of classes is especially important for professors in terms of meeting with students and administering finals — and that experience has already been disrupted. On Monday, her students presented their final projects on Zoom rather than in their classroom.

"I know we're all being very careful to not violate the terms of that trespass ban, because we've been informed that, should we do so, that the consequences could ramp up and be even worse than they are right now," she said.

Protests at Indiana have continued, with demonstrators now also calling for the university's president and provost to step down. More than 800 current and emeritus faculty members from the school have also signed an open letter calling for their resignation or removal.

It's one of several schools around the country where professors are getting arrested at demonstrations, circulating letters in support of arrested protesters and holding no-confidence votes in their administrations.

At Columbia University, for example, faculty members in orange vests linked arms, forming a human wall at the entrance to students' encampment as police arrived to break it up on Monday. Professors at Emory University staged a campus walkout that same day, chanting "hands off our students."

Many faculty members, disturbed by the forceful police response to protests, are increasingly standing up for students' academic freedom — and pushing back against university leadership that they see as infringing on it.

"I feel like faculty are in triage mode right now," said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). "They're helping the students, putting their bodies on the line ... they're dealing with the administration with no-confidence votes, but also trying to deal with the administration directly to get them to back off and do the right thing."

Faculty are attending — and getting arrested at — protests

Indiana State Police riot squad arrested dozens of people during a pro-Palestinian protest in Dunn Meadow in Bloomington on Thursday.
Jeremy Hogan / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Indiana State Police riot squad arrested dozens of people during a pro-Palestinian protest in Dunn Meadow in Bloomington on Thursday.

Hundreds of students have been arrested at campus protests within the last week. There is no exact tally of how many professors have been arrested, according to the AAUP, but news stories and social media reports suggest the numbers are steadily mounting.

Steve Tamari, a history professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, was among the protesters arrested at a campus demonstration on Saturday at Washington University in St. Louis, with video showing several officers slamming him to the ground.

In a statement read by a student on Tuesday, Tamari said he was "body slammed and crushed by the weight of several St. Louis County Police officers and then dragged across campus by the police," and remains hospitalized with broken ribs and a broken hand.

Two professors were among the 28 people arrested at Emory University on Thursday, after the administration called in city and state police to disperse a protest. Both high-profile arrests were captured on bystander videos.

In one, economics professor Caroline Fohlin approaches several police officers as they wrestle a protester to the ground, asking "what are you doing?" and telling them to get away. As she approaches, one officer grabs her by the wrist and flips her onto the sidewalk. Another comes over to help zip-tie her hands behind her back, as she protests: "I am a professor!"

Fohlin was later charged with battery against a police officer. Her lawyer, Gregory Clement, later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the arrest was misguided.

"Caroline Fohlin was not a protester at Emory on April 25," Clement said. "She emerged from her office, concerned only about the treatment of students on the quad."

The other professor arrested, Noëlle McAfee, was captured on video urging bystanders to notify the philosophy department — of which she is the chair — of her arrest as she is led away in handcuffs.

McAfee later told 11Alive News that she was passing through the area of the protest when she came across cops "pummeling" a young protester, and stood nearby asking them to stop. She didn't leave when police told her to, and was charged with disorderly conduct.

Twenty years ago, she said, she probably would have been one of those protesters. Today, she's focused less on the Israel-Hamas conflict at the heart of the demonstrations and more on what she calls the issue of "issue of higher education administrators clamping down on free expression and delegitimizing any kind of dissent."

"At this season of my life my job is to protect the students and to protect ... academic freedom. I can do that better than they can do that," she said. "And I think that's what we're seeing with faculty all over, both wanting to protect the students and wanting to call out administrations that are actually putting the students at risk."

But some faculty members are participating in protests themselves, joining students in calling for a cease-fire in Gaza and divestment from companies that do business with Israel.

Steven Thrasher, a journalism professor and chair of social justice in reporting at Northwestern University's Medill School, has been acting in what he calls a role of faculty support for the student encampment on its Illinois campus.

When the encampment started last week, he and other members of the group Educators for Justice in Palestine mobilized to make sure there would be faculty members available for bail support, university negotiations and physically defending student protesters, including by signing up for four-hour shifts on site.

"We're making sure that there's always four of us who are there, that the students know that we're there," Thrasher told NPR on Friday. "But ... we did not expect to be in a human barricade position in the first 10 minutes, which is what happened [Thursday] morning."

At protests, Thrasher identifies himself as someone who is willing to be arrested. He hopes that doesn't happen, but says he feels "quite committed to, if there's violence that can happen between the students and the administration or cops, that I'm going to put my body in that space when I'm there."

Thrasher acknowledges he's motivated by more than just protecting students' free speech.

"I would think that if I saw students who disagreed with me politically ... I would also intervene" on their behalf, he said. "But for me, it's also, I'm supporting them in something that I think is very righteous, and I'm very proud of them."

On Monday, Northwestern students and administrators reached an agreement to end the campus encampment.

Several faculty members have said in speeches and social media posts that they fear they will lose their jobs or face other repercussions for speaking out.

Mulvey, of the AAUP, says it's riskier for non-tenured professors to take a stand — and the long-term decline in tenure at American universities means that most do not have it. She said those dynamics are damaging not only to higher education institutions but democracy itself.

"If higher education faculty are beholden to saying what powerful people want them to say, and if they stray out of the line they're going to get fired, we are living in an authoritarian society," she said.

Faculty members are making demands — including resignations — of leadership

Emory University professors held a walkout on Monday in support of student protesters.
Elijah Nouvelage / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Emory University professors held a walkout on Monday in support of student protesters.

Faculty members at a growing list of schools are also making their opinions and demands known in writing.

Some are speaking up based on their subject matter expertise, like history professors at the University of Southern California and media school professors at Indiana University.

"As a faculty expressly charged with teaching our students about these values in the pursuit of journalism and other expressions of public communication, we strongly dissent from these anti-democratic acts," the Indiana professors wrote.

Professors at Northeastern University, where over 100 people were arrested on Saturday, sent university leaders a letter urging them to drop charges against protesters and issue a public apology and retraction of false allegations of antisemitism, among other demands. At least 144 Vanderbilt University professors signed a letter expressing support for student protesters and criticizing its "excessive and punitive" response.

At Princeton, where two graduate students were arrested and suspended from campus for setting up tents, faculty members signed a letter condemning their punishment and demanding their reinstatement. Over 300 Yale professorssigned a similar letter pressing university leaders to call on authorities to drop charges against all 48 protesters arrested and take no further disciplinary action against them.

"The use of policing, penalization and retribution to avoid protest or dialogue with students cannot stand, as this is no model for an educational institution," the Yale professors wrote.

And faculty members at some schools — including Barnard, Emory, UT-Austin and Cal Poly Humboldt — are issuing votes and statements of no confidence in their presidents, over their response to campus protests.

The principle of shared governance — which the AAUP defines as the "joint responsibility of faculty, administrations, and governing boards to govern colleges and universities" — is key to helping campuses move forward, Mulvey says.

She says most schools already have mechanisms — like faculty senates and academic councils — through which faculty members and administrators can engage with each other over what's happening and how to respond. But at many schools, she says, administrations are currently ignoring that structure.

"If you're not upholding it when it's needed, then it means nothing," she says. "The first thing is going to have to be a rebuilding of trust. And that trust takes a long time to build and repair."

Education and community as a path forward

Students work on their class assignments from a demonstration at George Washington University on Sunday.
Cliff Owen / AP
Students work on their class assignments at a demonstration at George Washington University on Sunday.

Campus protests, occupations and mass arrests are continuing, even as many schools wrap up classes and final exams.

Despite the frenzy, Mulvey believes professors generally will do their best to help students complete the term.

"My feeling is that the vast majority of faculty will bend over backwards to fulfill their academic obligations to the students ... whether it means a written final instead of an in-class final, whether it means extensions on projects, whether it means additional office hours," she said.

Mulvey sees the way forward as through education both inside and beyond the classroom. Thrasher, at Northwestern, agrees. He's currently teaching a graduate seminar called "The Theater of Protest," and accompanied his students to the encampment for a field trip during Monday's class.

Thrasher, who has reported on various Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protests over the years, says these sorts of encampments are "really amazing pedagogical spaces" where lots of valuable learning can happen, from interfaith prayers to lending libraries.

Phillips, the Indiana professor who was arrested, agrees that students are "our best teachers right now."

Like Thrasher, she says the best thing to come out of this turmoil is the deepening of solidarities within the community — she says she's spent time with colleagues in ways she hasn't in her more than two decades at the university, and seeing many newly emboldened to stand up for their beliefs.

"There's definitely no more business as usual," she says. "We have really come together in a way that has shown how fragile community can be, but also how important community is."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.