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The Case for Leaving Protesters Be

By Frank S. Zhou
By Ryan D. Enos, Contributing Opinion Writer
Ryan D. Enos is a professor of Government.

Joining other universities across the United States, Harvard students protesting the ongoing war in Gaza and their institution’s investments in that war, have constructed an encampment in Harvard Yard.

This development follows events at Columbia University, where administrators used the heavy-handed tactics of arrest and suspension to dismantle an encampment constructed by their students. Hours later it reappeared in full force, accompanied by faculty protests against the treatment of students.

While the Columbia protesters have made clear that they will face arrest in order to further their cause, others, including donors and Congressional Republicans, have demanded that these protests be brought to an end.

Now Harvard faces a similarly difficult choice: Attempt to clear these encampments by disciplining or arresting students or let the encampments remain, perhaps in defiance of University policies, and face the scorn of those who would like to see these protests shut down.

But just because university administrators can shut down these protests doesn’t mean they should. History shows quite plainly that using coercive force to close encampments won’t eliminate protests — it could very well strengthen them.

People in power, whether administrators at universities, teachers in the classroom, police on the street, prosecutors in the courtroom, or members of Congress, often have a range of powers legally available to them that they can use in any situation, but prudence says they should not.

Some may say that rules must always be enforced for the sake of fairness and order. As a college professor dealing with everything from classroom policies on electronic devices to requests for extensions on assignment due dates, I appreciate this perspective.

But every teacher also knows how the slavish enforcement of every rule can become a distraction that undermines the greater goal of learning. Teachers and other leaders don’t just robotically enforce rules; they’re people chosen for their wisdom about how and when to judiciously apply them.

Political scientists refer to the practice of leaders wisely showing restraint in not maximally exercising power or enforcing policies as “forbearance.” A congressional leader practicing forbearance might seek compromise with the other party even though they have the votes to pass laws on their own because they know that one day the other party may be in power.

As the recent history of American politics shows, with Congress deadlocked by endless filibusters, courts languishing without judicial appointments, and the threat of tit-for-tat impeachments, a lack of forbearance can lead to a cycle of escalation and, eventually, ruin.

The events on college campuses recently have shown the same pattern of escalation. When leaders at Columbia, seemingly in an attempt to appease grandstanding members of Congress, didn’t practice the restraint used by previous college presidents faced with similar protests, student demonstrations only grew. As a result, Columbia has faced even more turmoil and has been forced to move to hybrid instruction.

Why would anyone be surprised at this outcome?

When protesters are angry at authority, a heavy-handed use of authority is only going to make them more likely to protest. One only needs to look back to the George Floyd demonstrations in 2020 to understand this. And, of course, the arrest of peaceful protesters did little to appease the cynical politicians who are now calling for the removal of Columbia’s president.

What happened at Columbia makes the immediate case for forbearance on college campuses clear: Coercive force will not make anybody happy because it will not accomplish anyone’s goals, even those who most want to see the protesters gone.

But the case for forbearance isn’t only one of immediate expediency. We practice forbearance for a greater good. Just like a member of Congress should ask whether they are elected only to pass legislation that will help with their reelection or whether they serve a higher purpose for the good of their country, a university leader must ask whether their role is merely to keep their job or nobly serve the higher goals of the university. Would ending these protests allow all voices to be heard? Would ending these protests allow for a free exchange of ideas? Would ending these protests bring us closer to the truth? It’s hard to see how.

The alternative for our leaders is to simply wait these protesters out — even if it means life on campus is disrupted a bit because people have to show an ID to get into Harvard Yard or see and hear things they disagree with.

But being exposed to controversial views is not only the price of living in a free society — it’s also the great benefit of attending college and having your perspectives challenged. And eventually, as public attention will inevitably shift elsewhere, the reduced spotlight will make things easier on everyone.

Of course, leaders could also talk to these student protestors and hear their demands — many of which, like disclosing the University’s financial ties to companies aiding the occupation of Palestinian territories and the war in Gaza, are eminently reasonable. Why should the financial holdings of universities, places built not to maximize profits but rather to promote truth, be kept secret from their stakeholders?

Moreover, a fog of disinformation has covered these protests. Some claim that universities are overrun with antisemitic hordes, while others, including myself and my colleagues, have seen only peaceful actions from diverse student protesters, including many Jews, earnestly challenging what they see as a grave violation of human rights. University leaders must be clear about what is happening on our campus, rather than letting social media and opportunistic politicians manufacture narratives.

There are no easy decisions here. But leaders are exceptional, not because they competently make routine decisions, but because of the qualities they bring when the times are exceptional. Even when they are under extreme pressure to take action, it is leaders who proceed with forbearance who are most often judged kindly in the history books.

Ryan D. Enos is a professor of Government.

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