After three weeks of gingerly crafted word salad emanating from American universities, the response of Tulane University president Michael Fitts to a “Free Palestine” protest-turned-riot that injured at least one pro-Israel student counter-protester and two other students was marvelously clear: he unequivocally condemned the violent rioters and vowed to punish any Tulane student who participated.
Last Thursday afternoon, “Tulane Students for Palestine” staged a rally on a public, city-controlled street that bisects the school’s New Orleans campus. One protester—apparently not a Tulane student—took a lighter to an Israeli flag; when a pro-Israel student grabbed it, an assailant hit the student in the head with a Palestinian flag. The ensuing melee injured three students.
Fitts didn’t respond with a top-line call for calm dialogue and a plea for each side to understand the other’s pain. Instead, he took a sharp law-and-order approach. “We condemn and are outraged by today’s violence,” he wrote. “Everyone who committed an illegal act on this day will be held accountable for their actions. In addition, all students are accountable to the Code of Student Conduct,” with violators to face “disciplinary action.” Fitts praised police for making “several arrests” on-scene, as well as a later arrest for anti-Semitic vandalism, and noted that “additional arrests may be forthcoming as video evidence is reviewed.” He also promised more policing by both on-campus and city officers and told students to expect a “highly visible police presence” at future protests. Finally, he warned students “to avoid participating in any further demonstrations off campus,” as they could get caught up in violent escalation.
Contrast Fitts’s response to that of Cooper Union college officials after the anti-Israel protest that took place on its New York campus last Wednesday. Students who had been protesting outside decided to take their demands onto Cooper Union property. Swarming at the entrance to the school’s downtown building, they ignored the requirement to swipe their IDs before entering. When guards locked the doors, protesters left behind banged on the glass. Protesters who had gained entrance despite the guards’ best efforts walked upstairs to the library, where Jewish students, some wearing yarmulkes, took refuge. When guards barred the library, the protestors banged on the doors for at least ten minutes while shouting. One Jewish student heard calls for the “murder of Jews.”
Yet no student protester has faced arrest for trespassing, whether for entering the building despite the guards’ efforts to keep them out or for trying to enter the barricaded library, disorderly conduct, or menacing. This failure to enforce the law came even as New York police maintained that they were on the scene “from start to finish.”
The college’s official response has minimized the episode. In a statement late Wednesday, President Laura Sparks insisted on calling the protest “peaceful,” ignoring the fact that once students entered a school building without authorization and sought to gain entry to a locked library, they ceased to be “peaceful.” The only reasons violence didn’t ensue are that the guards surrendered and the library doors held shut. In Sparks’s version, terrified Jewish students “chose to stay in the library"; they weren’t trapped there. Sparks said nothing about why the guards’ presence had failed to deter a mob. As for the student code of conduct, the school will only “initiate any necessary actions.”
Sparks’s cravenness and Fitts’s strong stand may be outliers, but over the past three weeks, universities’ responses to the Hamas terror attack against Israel on October 7 have more closely resembled Cooper Union’s than Tulane’s.
Why? One reason may be that Fitts, who has led Tulane (my alma mater) for nine years, is himself an outlier among university leaders. Before he taught at and led the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School, he served as a top official in the Department of Justice during Ronald Reagan’s first term. He claims that his inspiration for attending law school (Yale) was To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch—evidence of an uncomplicated approach to right and wrong.
Sparks, too, is an outlier. Cooper Union hired her six years ago not because of any experience in academia (she has none) but because of her fundraising skills; her relevant experience is in Democratic-leaning philanthropy. Cooper Union’s previous leaders vastly mismanaged the school’s finances, including borrowing unsustainably to build a marquee headquarters, forcing the school to begin charging tuition nearly a decade ago for the first time in its century-old existence. Her main task has been to “revers[e] decades of deficits.”
Without any grounding in academia, Sparks’s instinct, in a panic, may have been to follow the crowd: the default academic position, hardened since George Floyd’s killing in May 2020, that any criminal-justice ramifications for illegal and threatening actions, including low-level lawbreaking such as trespassing and disorderly conduct, are unjustifiable. Fitts’s own experience, on the other hand, allowed him to do something that, in the present climate, seems almost radical: remind students that they are adults and will face real-world consequences for bad behavior.
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