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Many universities celebrate student activism. That is, when protests are in the past


More universities are changing or canceling their commencement plans. Today Emory announced it is moving its ceremony to an Atlanta suburb. And in New York, Columbia canceled its university-wide commencement. Our next guest argues that many of these schools proudly advertise their history of student protests while cracking down on present-day demonstrations. Bates College professor Tyler Austin Harper interviewed dozens of students, professors and administrators for his piece in The Atlantic, headlined "America's Colleges Are Reaping What They Sowed." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TYLER AUSTIN HARPER: Thank you so much - happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: You write that some college protests seem to age like fine wine, in your words. It takes half a century before the institution begins enjoying them. What do you mean by that?

HARPER: Yeah. So I think a lot of the universities that we've seen in the news actually have a habit of celebrating Vietnam-era protests from their own university's history. So Cornell, for example, has a plaque and did a year-long ceremony recently devoted to the 1969 armed takeover of a campus building during the civil rights and Vietnam-era protests. So, you know, what I meant by that line is these universities really like to romanticize their past history of protest to appeal to current progressive students. But when those students, you know, do as advertised and protest, then universities crack down without much remorse.

SHAPIRO: And when you spoke to students, professions and administrators about this, you write that a phrase that came up again and again was shocked but not surprised at the reaction to the present-day protests. Tell us more about that.

HARPER: Yeah. You know, I think, for a while now, there has been a sense among a lot of students, faculty and administrators that universities are deeply hypocritical spaces, where, on the one hand, they like to talk a big game about social justice and activism. And then on the other hand, you know, they're hiking tuition rates and are engines of mounting student debt for a lot of people. And so I talked to a number of folks at Cornell. Cornell has a theme year every year. This year's theme year is the freedom of expression. So, you know, it's not lost on folks that this university that celebrates its history of past protests has cracked down on current examples of free speech. So I do think people have been shocked by the degree of force and the draconian policies that universities are using. But I also think, at the same time, they're not at all surprised because they've already seen these universities as pretty deeply hypocritical places.

SHAPIRO: And yet there are some differences between today's protests and previous generations. And yesterday on Weekend Edition, we heard from Pedro Noguera, who led campus protests against apartheid as a student at UC Berkeley. He's now a dean at University of Southern California. And here's how he described one major difference between then and now.


PEDRO NOGUERA: It's really different because there was never a pro-apartheid group we had to contend with. There is a pro-Israel group, a pro-Zionist group. There are many Jewish faculty and students who see the protests as being antisemitic. I don't see it that way. And I know many Jewish friends and colleagues who don't see it that way.

SHAPIRO: You know, today's protests have so much more pressure and scrutiny from members of Congress, major donors and other outside influencers who have a lot of power over college campuses. Could that account, at least in part, for the difference in reaction we're seeing?

HARPER: I think that's a huge part of it. I think something really important to understand about contemporary universities, and particularly elite universities, is that they are catering to two different customer bases, both of which are financially crucial. One is students. And then, on the other hand, you have donors. And both of these groups are, you know, very politically different, right? The students are more progressive, which is why universities market to them in progressive terms and tout their social justice bonafides and their history of protest. Donors tend to skew, you know, more conservative.

And it seems as though universities have decided that, you know, they're going to ride with the donors, that, you know, at the end of the day, students are still going to want to apply to Columbia and Harvard and everywhere else. I think that explains a lot of it. And, yeah, the political pressure piece is really important. One thing that came out in my reporting is that the primary pressure points - or at least a substantial pressure point - at a number of public universities where we've seen a harsh crackdown like Indiana University, University of Texas at Austin, there's tons of local and state-level political pressure coming in those places that is largely driving the response there.

SHAPIRO: That's Tyler Austin Harper. He's an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College in Maine and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. Thank you so much.

HARPER: Thank you so much. It was great talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.