There’s no compass to navigate these troubled waters of university unrest.

At Columbia and Yale, college officials forcibly dismantled pro-Palestinian encampments and arrested dozens. But the encampments already are back up.

Pro-Palestinian students and faculty say universities haven’t done enough to protect them, while pro-Israel students say they are the ones who actually have been subject to harassment and ridicule. About 900 people have been arrested nationwide at campus demonstrations, including one arrest at the University of Pennsylvania.

There’s donor and alumni pressure, congressional scrutiny, round-the-clock media coverage, lawsuits, and concerns about how it’s all disrupting education and campus life. The University of Southern California in Los Angeles canceled commencement because of safety concerns.

Enter the college president, who is charged with charting a path through the nearly impossible situation, with roots in a region continents away. It’s the hardest public-facing challenge that school leaders have confronted in recent years, experts say.

“College presidents, right now, the pressures they are under are very significant,” said Sigal Ben-Porath, a presidential professor in at the Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “Whatever you choose, there is going to be a justified, well-grounded argument for the opposite side. Whatever you choose, there is a remainder.”

‘An impossible demand’

Ben-Porath, the author of the book Free Speech on Campus, sees the controversy over the pro-Palestinian encampment at Penn through a unique perspective. She is a native of Israel, with family still living there. She once chaired the university’s Open Expression committee, which governs regulations around student protest, as well as the hearing board that recommended sanctions against law professor Amy Wax. Her world has been steeped in issues of free speech and academic freedom.

“What is at stake is really compelling, significant values that we as higher education institutions stand for,” said Ben-Porath, who has been at Penn for about 20 years. “The protection of open expression and free inquiry is one of them. The cultivation of civic engagement is another … The ability of all of our students to participate in learning activities without threat and harassment and hatred towards them …

“These are the values college presidents are looking to balance, and they really are very, very difficult to balance at this moment … Presidents have to basically choose who they stand with and it’s really an impossible demand.”

Jon Fansmith, senior vice president for government relations and national engagement at the American Council on Education, said there’s no perfect script or blueprint to follow.

“There likely will not be a single college president who [resolves] this in a way that every side is satisfied,” he said. “That just seems impossible to imagine that there is sort of a perfect outcome here.”

The best they can do, he said, is to make sure policies are current and “stress-tested” and applied consistently, with the implications of actions made clear.

As arrests mount, presidents try different tactics

At Columbia Monday, officials warned that students would face suspension if they didn’t sign a form and leave their encampment by the afternoon. Students defied the ultimatum. UCLA students and faculty held a walkout at noon in support of pro-Palestinian protesters.

They were among student activists at more than 50 campuses nationwide in the last few weeks that have staged encampments or sit-ins in support of Palestinians, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking the movement.

Rutgers University in New Brunswick became the latest area campus to see a pro-Palestinian encampment rise on Monday afternoon. Rutgers’ faculty unions said they support students and their members’ right to protest and would form a faculty committee “to monitor the situation and — if the administration makes it necessary — protect them from arrest and repression.”

Jonathan Holloway, Rutgers’ president, said he respects students’ right to protest “in ways that do not interfere with university operations or with the ability of their fellow students to learn.”

Encampments also were still in place at Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Penn.

Around the country, arrests are mounting. On Saturday, more than 200 protesters were arrested at Northeastern University, Arizona State University, Indiana University, and Washington University in St. Louis, the New York Times reported. About 900 arrests have occurred nationally since April 18. At the University of Pittsburgh, two protesters, including a student, were arrested Sunday night on a trespassing charge, according to Trib Live.

There had been only been a single arrest at Penn as of Monday evening, that of a 70-year-old Philadelphia man wearing a large knife in his belt on Sunday when he came to a Passover Seder held at the encampment. The man, who was not affiliated with the encampment or protest, was charged with having cutting instruments in streets or public places.

Presidents have varied in their approaches to the encampments.

Princeton University last week quickly shut down an encampment that pro-Palestinian protesters attempted to erect and arrested two graduate students, charging them with trespassing.

Christopher Eisgruber, Princeton’s president, explained his rationale in an opinion piece for The Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper.

“Encampments can obstruct others from moving freely or conducting university business,” said Eisgruber, who has led the Ivy League university for 11 years. “They can create health and safety risks. They require significant staff time to keep occupants and bystanders safe, thereby diverting people and resources from fulfilling their primary purpose.

“They can intimidate community members who must walk past them. There is no practical way to bar outsiders from joining the encampments.”

The university has the right to limit the times and places where protests can occur, he said.

Penn’s encampment enters day five

At Penn, where the encampment is in day five, interim president J. Larry Jameson through a statement has ordered the protesters to disband the encampment, but they have not complied. The university also has said that the students and staff must provide their IDs, which organizers at the encampment have said they will refuse to do.

On Monday, signs were posted around the encampment area, warning protesters they are trespassing on school grounds. There were 30 tents and about 60 protesters there Monday.

The signs said protesters who set up tents on the College Green were in violation of Philadelphia city code, which prohibits “tents and other structures” from being erected without first obtaining permits. The notice also said the area where protesters have set up are “not zoned for outdoor living accommodations.”

Protesters prepared for a hot day, drinking water and passing around sunscreen samples.

“We are hopeful and waiting to have another round of negotiation,” student organizer Emma Herndon said.

The university has been mum on what approach it will take next or what strategies it is employing to resolve the situation, other than noting that Jameson and the provost had met with a group of students and faculty Saturday night and have been trying to negotiate.

Jameson apparently hasn’t tipped his hand to city officials, either.

City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said she has been trying to talk to Jameson about the encampment, but he won’t take her call.

“I don’t feel like that’s acceptable when there are serious things happening,” said Gauthier, a West Philadelphia native who represents the 3rd District, which includes West and Southwest Philadelphia. “It’s important for all the stakeholders involved to communicate. I’m reaching out to the president of Penn as an important stakeholder, an important leader of this community.”

Some of her staff members were at the encampment Sunday night and reached out to The Inquirer to express frustration.

“I have no idea about Penn’s plan to deal with this, their timeline, how they want to keep other people informed,” she said late Sunday. “They are just operating as if they are this island.”

Penn said Jameson has to stay focused on resolving the situation but has received the feedback and appreciates it. Jeffrey Cooper, Penn’s vice president for government and community affairs, spoke to Gauthier on Monday, a Penn spokesperson said.

Ben-Porath declined to say what she thinks Penn’s next move should be in resolving the conflict.

“I just wish for calm and peace on our campus and on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.,” she said. “I hope the two are not inextricably linked to each other, because I think the Middle East has a long road ahead. I hope we can find a way to talk to each other here, even as over there, there is still a lot of work.”

(Staff writer Rob Tornoe contributed to this article.)



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