Who Has the Right to “Disrupt” the University?

The very administrators now cracking down on student protests’ “disruptiveness” have been dismantling higher education for decades.

Dennis M. Hogan
May 3, 2024

Pro-Palestine student protesters at the City College of New York on April 25th, 2024.

Sipa USA / Alamy Stock Photo

On the night of April 30th, administrators at Columbia University and the City College of New York asked the New York Police Department (NYPD) to clear encampments built on their campuses by pro-Palestine student protesters. Although both schools had previously served student encampments with eviction orders, neither had warned protesters, or the rest of their campus communities, of the arrival of the NYPD, apart from a message at Columbia to “shelter in place.” The scale of the police response was stunning: Hundreds of police officers cordoned off an entire Manhattan neighborhood and poured onto the campuses dressed in full riot gear, where they carried out almost three hundred often brutal arrests. To justify this overwhelming use of force, both Columbia administrators and New York City Mayor Eric Adams have attempted to blame at least some of the campus activism on “outside agitators” and professional protesters. Those claims—which were quickly challenged by student journalists—belie the fact that what is happening on campuses around the country is really an internal struggle, between a strong contingent of students and faculty on the one hand and administrators on the other.

Since April 17th, when Columbia students first occupied a campus lawn to demand that the university financially divest from Israel, Gaza solidarity encampments have spread rapidly across the country. But as the encampment movement has grown, so, too, has the administrative preference for repressive response. On April 18th, Columbia president Nemat Shafik, fresh from an examination by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in Washington, DC, took the then-extraordinary step of inviting the NYPD to campus to clear the protesters. More than 100 Barnard and Columbia students were arrested, although the encampment was quickly re-built by others. Since then, university leaders have called the cops on students and faculty at schools ranging from New York University, where more than a dozen faculty members were arrested as they lined up around praying student protesters; to the University of Texas, Austin, where state troopers in riot gear violently dragged protesters off the quad; to Emory University in Atlanta, where police reportedly used teargas, rubber bullets, and tasers against students and faculty; to Indiana University, which posted snipers on rooftops and handed out one-year bans from campus to both professors and students who had joined the demonstrations.

Yet even as university leaders have occasioned this massive crackdown on student organizing, they have tried to maintain a notional commitment to free speech by creating a new litmus test for what kind of protest activity they are prepared to tolerate. For example, in February, in response to growing campus activism, Columbia issued a new “Interim University Policy for Safe Demonstrations,” which restricted the time, place, and manner of approved protests. (The interim policy replaced another that had been unilaterally imposed by top administrators in October, under which campus chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine had been suspended in November.) According to the university communications office, the new policy would preserve “the right of members of the Columbia community to be heard” while also enabling “members of the community who do not want to participate to work around these events” and ensuring that “academic life on campus is not disrupted by demonstrations.” This basic logic—that universities must restrict free speech in order to save it—is also on display on other campuses. On April 2nd, after a pro-divestment sit-in at Vanderbilt, university chancellor Daniel Diermeier published an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal explaining that under his leadership, “students can advocate BDS . . . but they can’t disrupt university operations during classes, in libraries or on construction sites.” President Joe Biden endorsed much the same view on May 2nd, saying of student protests in a speech at the White House: “Dissent is essential for democracy. But dissent must never lead to disorder.”

These policies make perfect sense if you believe that the function of protest is purely expressive, and that its goal is to put forward a point of view for consideration in the marketplace of ideas. In that case, barring disruption is the only way to secure the functioning of the institution against the heckler’s veto. Debate can take place, but only so long as business as usual is allowed to proceed. The problem with this approach is that protest is not exclusively expressive: Protesters seek not only to advance their points of view, but to change the facts on the ground on their campuses. In doing so, they correctly recognize that the contemporary American university is much more than a marketplace of ideas; it is an unprecedented institutional form that acts as a powerful force in fields from real estate to healthcare to finance—to, indeed, weapons manufacturing. In fact, it is precisely these operations—and their entanglements with the Israeli and US war machines—that student protesters are targeting, with demands that are not only expressive (asking administrators to join calls for a ceasefire, for example) but also material. When the very point of protesting is to put a stop to business as usual, the right to disrupt becomes a central part of the right to protest.

Indeed, university administrators are aware that campus protest is about disruption rather than just expression—not least because they have spent the last few years contending with a wave of “disruptive” union activity that has spread to nearly every part of the large and growing university apparatus: adjunct professors, graduate students, postdocs, undergraduate teaching assistants, library workers, and medical residents and nurses in university-affiliated healthcare facilities. This increasingly militant campus labor movement has disrupted classes, exams, grading, and meetings of administrators and boards, winning better contracts in the process. Along the way, these labor uprisings have also functioned as a bottom-up attempt to address the crises of the modern university. As the labor historian Gabriel Winant has recently written, the university has become “an increasingly economically and institutionally denuded landscape, vulnerable to landslide. Following years of radical decrease in state support . . . and corresponding increase in tuition costs and student indebtedness, many universities now seem near a financial breaking point.” In this context, the union drives and strikes sweeping campuses—which challenge contemporary higher education’s tendency to treat employees, students, and surrounding communities as disposable—double as efforts to strengthen the core functions of the university.

But rather than allowing these disruptions from below to move the university towards a vision in service of the common good, administrators have been keen to counter with disruptions from above. In recent years, they have advanced a version of the university that is seamlessly integrated with big business and big tech, hoping to develop both job pipelines and revenue streams that could keep their institutions solvent in an era of turmoil. This shift involves a push toward devaluing and defunding critical teaching and learning in the social sciences and the humanities, as well as basic research in the sciences. Through these transformations, administrators aim to create a more politically quietist university: No student radicals, no protests, no embarrassing discussions to be had about the way schools profit from war, occupation, and apartheid. And no more obstacles—in the form of disruptions from below—to the frictionless operation of the reimagined university.

If you had been following the pet projects of administrators in recent years, you might have been forgiven for thinking that universities viewed disruption in exclusively positive terms. Take Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s University, which advertises to prospective students that “transformation and disruption are in our DNA.” At Georgia State University’s Robinson School of Business, students can pursue an online graduate certificate in “Disruptive Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” while at the University of Southern California—a school that not only unleashed riot police on pro-Palestine student protesters, but also canceled commencement rather than allow its Muslim valedictorian, Asna Tabussum, to speak—students at the entrepreneurship-focused Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young academy can even minor in disruption.

In addition to promising to train students to disrupt industries, university leaders have also committed to disrupting the institutions they lead. In 2022, then-Temple University President Jason Wingard published The College Devaluation Crisis: Market Disruption, Diminishing ROI, and an Alternative Future of Learning, which the critic Matthew Seybold has characterized as “a how-to manual for turning universities into corporate training sequences.” Wingard’s treatise found a sympathetic patron in Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, who chairs the Education and Workforce committee that has created such a headache for Ivy League presidents. The month the book was published, Foxx distributed the abbreviated form of Wingard’s argument found in his Inside Higher Ed op-ed, “Higher Ed Must Change or Die,” to her colleagues through the committee’s press office, praising the college president for recognizing that “it is time for institutions of higher education to rethink the status quo.” (In an ironic twist, in 2023, a different kind of disruption—in the form of a prolonged graduate strike at Temple—led directly to Wingard’s departure.)

Perhaps the most egregious example of the administrator-as-disruptor is Gordon Gee, currently the president of West Virginia University (WVU), whose administration pushed through extraordinarily deep cuts to the institution’s academic offerings last fall. Gee’s cuts were so shocking because they targeted the state flagship, not the satellite campuses, as other state higher ed retrenchments have done. Gee cloaked his cuts in the language of disruption, saying during a meeting of the faculty senate: “I want to be very clear that the university is not dismantling higher education. We are disrupting it . . . And many of you know I am a firm believer in disruption.” Far more than student protest, this kind of disruption from above affects the normal functioning of the university and derails academic life: In the wake of Gee’s cuts, 28 academic programs disappeared and 143 faculty positions were eliminated, with both tenured professors and temporary ones losing their jobs alongside huge numbers of non-instructional staff. The remaining faculty spread more work over fewer people, and WVU became synonymous not with innovation, but with surrender.

Gee’s faith in disruption represents a mainstream position among university administrators and their backers in the policy and foundation worlds. Take the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a coalition of university administrators at public research universities around the country. The UIA’s stated aim is to increase educational equity, in particular by boosting graduation rates for low-income students and students of color. In practice, the group has also served as a platform for university leaders like Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), to advocate for the need to disrupt higher ed by adopting techno-solutionist and directly career-focused educational models. LeBlanc pioneered the transformation of SNHU from a tiny private college to an online behemoth enrolling over 100,000 students in online degree programs. As longtime administrator John King writes in a 2020 blog post for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a foundation-funded nonprofit focused on advancing career and technical education, SNHU is “a disrupter in the higher education marketplace . . . the first truly mega-university in the United States.” Among this pivot to online’s chief advantages from the perspective of administrators is that it reduces the need for expensive labor or facilities outlays: University teaching has already been substantially casualized, and online education only accelerates that trend. The University of Phoenix, for example, has 130 full-time instructors and more than 2,800 part-time ones. Making education more accessible and affordable is undoubtedly good. But replacing a real education with a lowest-common-denominator skills-training program that funnels student loan money to colleges while exploiting instructors serves neither students nor teachers—though it might satisfy some employers who prefer to outsource the cost of employee training to workers themselves.

Unsurprisingly, the proponents of disruption from above have attempted to suppress opposing visions of higher education. This includes protests and labor actions that seek to block the unilateral imposition of the autocratic university—whether at schools that are replacing the classroom experience with standardized content delivery, or at elite institutions like Columbia, where administrators make major decisions without consulting students or faculty. In this effort, administrators have been aided by a suite of right-wing legislators, donors, trustees, and corporate partners. For instance, last month, Rutgers University junior Jeremy Li, with the backing of the anti-labor Center for American Rights, filed a suit in state court against the coalition of Rutgers unions that engaged in a weeklong strike last spring, arguing that they had denied him a week of the education he had paid for. (Li is the chair of the Rutgers Republicans and, in October, appeared on Fox Business News to criticize the campus response to the October 7th attacks and advocate for greater support for Israel from the Rutgers administration.) The suit seeks class action status, meaning that the unions, if found liable for engaging in an illegal strike, could owe students who were enrolled last spring a collective $150 million in damages. The goal of the suit is explicitly to establish a precedent that any activity that shuts down classes could result in a prohibitively expensive judgment against unions. The filing uses the word “disrupt” and its derivatives a dozen times in 50 pages, including in citations from union members and leaders themselves about the “disruptive” power of strikes, finally alleging: “In other words, the unions intentionally timed the strike to create the maximum disruption for students to gain the maximum leverage at the bargaining table.”

In addition to such legal strategies to quell disruption from below, university leaders have not hesitated to use their disciplinary and policing powers against labor activists. At the University of Michigan, police detained two striking graduate workers who were picketing outside a restaurant where the president, Santa Ono, was eating dinner. They were charged with disorderly conduct (in a statement, the University accused the workers of “actively disrupting the education of their fellow students”). At the University of California, a 2023 UAW campaign aimed at enforcing the contract won by graduate workers in a 2022 strike resulted in repressive university retribution: Some union members were arrested for vandalism for using washable chalk on university property, and others were given university assault charges for interrupting a speech given by the chancellor of UC San Diego. (Both complaints were later dropped after the union campaigned against employer retaliation.) Faced with disruption, administrators wield their compulsive power against students and employees alike, threatening their transcripts, their grades, their grad school applications, their salaries. These are the latest iteration of the ordinary economic weapons, long familiar to the labor activist, but newly powerful for students for whom expulsion from school might mean not only losing years of progress towards a degree, but being saddled with a debt burden without the credential that could allow them to pay it. The incentives for going along to get along are real.

Collective action has emerged, once again, as the most viable solution to these dilemmas. As the old labor adage goes: They can’t fire us all. Universities can’t expel their entire student bodies (though they can, apparently, begin disciplinary proceedings against a large number of them). As students around the country are making evident, with sufficient numbers—and sufficient courage—it becomes possible to challenge the American university’s commitment to accumulation at any costs. After all, the same drive to accumulate that directs university investments in a killing machine also makes university employment precarious and exploitative, and renders universities themselves engines of displacement and inequality. This is the terrible irony of right-wing and administrative attacks on disruption from below. The academic workers of Rutgers who now face a potentially ruinous lawsuit, for example, fought in their weeklong work stoppage not only for themselves, but also for the integrity of the product, the quality of the education. As another union saying, this one developed by teachers’ unions, reminds us: Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.

Student protesters who ask universities to take seriously their own rhetoric about truth and justice understand that their institutions’ betrayal of these commitments is neither symbolic nor incidental. They are specifically targeting their universities’ ties to, and investments in, weapons manufacturers, companies on the United Nations’s list of business enterprises profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and funds that do business with these entities. In some cases, these links are more tangential; in others, more direct: The Rhode Island School of Design counts Rhode Island-based defense contractor Textron as a longstanding financial backer, while the University of Pennsylvania’s Pennovation Works business incubator hosts Ghost Robotics, a company that develops robot dog technology used by the Israeli army. Some have raised legitimate concerns that university financial holdings are far more complex, and opaque, than they were, say, during South African apartheid; we are four decades further into a financialized economy that has turned almost everything in our lives into an asset. But even if divestment can be complicated, it is certainly possible: Several universities quickly divested from Russian interests after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Since the start of the encampment movement, Evergreen State College in Washington has agreed to take steps towards “divestment from companies that profit from gross human rights violations and/or the occupation of Palestinian Territories,” and Portland State University has paused accepting contributions from Boeing, a key defense contractor with ties to Israel, while The New School has partially disclosed its investments, and Brown University has pledged to hold a vote on whether to divest in the fall. And while even divestment of all US university assets from companies complicit in Israeli war crimes would be unlikely to slow Israel’s prosecution of the war in Gaza, moves within higher ed could be the beginning of a domino effect that would alter the political, and perhaps even the economic, terrain.

Student activists’ goal—of stopping an Israeli assault that the International Court of Justice has described as plausibly a genocide, and which has killed more than 35,000 people in Gaza and displaced nearly 2 million—could not be more urgent. And in working to gain leverage over institutions that they recognize as points of leverage in turn, student protesters have, by necessity, opened up a new front in the fight for the university itself. They have developed these values, in part, through their educational experiences—experiences that administrators alternately disrupt and now insist, for the sake of student learning and institutional functioning, must not be disrupted. Yet the moral force of the student encampments speaks in another language of necessity: How can business as usual not cease when business as usual is so murderous? By refusing to stand aside for the war machine, the students, to the best of their abilities, are disrupting Israel’s assault on Palestinians. They may even, in a less monumental way, be disrupting their universities in order to save them.

This article has been updated to reflect that Evergreen State College has not divested from Israeli companies complicit in human rights violations; rather, it has signed a Memorandum of Understanding taking steps towards divestment.

Dennis M. Hogan is a writer, organizer, and academic.