Two hundred years ago, Sir Robert Peel laid out a set of principles that became the foundation of modern, professional policing. Central to these was the truth “that the police are the public and that the public are the police.” Cops are citizens hired to focus full-time on duties “incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.” The recognition of shared ambitions between the public and law enforcement is critical for a thriving society.

The sometimes-cartoonish melodramas playing out on Columbia University’s campus highlight how, contrary to Peel’s principles, elite American institutions dread any connections between themselves and law enforcement. A deep desire not to represent authority, rule of law, or sanctioned physical force impels academia to do everything it can to disassociate itself from cops.

Indeed, Columbia president Minouche Shafik’s official request to the NYPD to remove occupiers from the university’s Hamilton Hall sought the department’s assistance “with the utmost regret” and bade cops forcefully to remove screaming, pro-terrorist rioters “in a peaceful . . . manner.” Elite institutions can barely tolerate the trained officers who do the unpleasant tasks that facilitate what Peel called “community welfare.” Columbia University Press even recently rejected a glowingly reviewed book on New York’s 1990s crime decline for, reportedly, being “too sympathetic toward policing.”

Why? Maybe because police, despite their imperfections, must daily confront something that academia is determined to ignore: reality.

Reality, after all, is an arena in which scholarly work often has little relevance. This is especially true in fields where the pervasive academic paradigms of oppressor versus oppressed, colonizer versus indigenous people, and “ashkenormativity” have fostered the most fictional framework of all: Jews as genocidal Zionists versus victimized Hamas liberators. One way to maintain such worldviews is to insist that wielding authority is something that other people do. Conveniently, this is also a great way to avoid a hard day’s work.

On a glorious, 80-degree day this week, Columbia’s library staff shelved a research request in a self-serving flight from reality. “Due to extreme safety concerns presented by the invited and continued presence of NYPD Officers on campus,” read their email response, “especially the dangers this poses for queer and trans communities and communities of color, the Oral History Archives staff are unable to conduct in-person work on campus.”

This is the kind of self-parodic nonsense that allows a librarian to spend a day at Jones Beach rather than providing community members with research materials. Of course, the librarians offered zero evidence that police posed any danger to law-abiding people on campus (as if). Columbia’s brave library staffers were “also unable to attend to any University administrative or service tasks” because the fantasy of transphobic police brutality prevented them from performing the perilous work of oral history file retrieval.

Unlike these fragile blooms, police don’t just skip work because of potential danger. On the contrary, they frequently sign up for duties that are intrinsically risky because it feels good to do something real.

In the name of fantasy narratives about Gaza, Columbia University humors antisocial behavior. The Transport Workers Union is planning to sue the school for failing to safeguard custodians trapped in Hamilton Hall by an anti-Israel mob. “Frankly,” union president John Samuelsen declared, “Columbia cannot be relied upon to protect their blue-collar workers.” Henry Clemente, a head custodian, remains concerned as he removes graffiti from the building’s walls: “It’s kind of dangerous, you don’t know who’s putting stuff up and how they can react to you taking it down.”

Even local businesses have been hurt by street closures and, now, by the forced cancellation of commencement, which means fewer customers, reduced hours, and slashed shifts for their employees. All these real-world considerations have been trampled by persistent adherence to the imaginary.

In recent months, college leadership has paid lip service to the notion that the destructive and inarticulate protestors are courageous. Even Dartmouth’s president, Sian Leah Beilock, who has been relatively steadfast, wrote of students’ “bravery” in blocking campus spaces that are supposed to be available for all.

No wonder college administrators differ from police on the “interests of community welfare and existence.”

Leaders in academia (and elsewhere) need to stop pretending that they don’t possess a similar authority as law enforcement. It’s the irresponsible way that they have exercised theirs that sets them apart from the NYPD.

Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images


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