Skip to content Skip to footer

Campus Crackdowns Have Exposed Authoritarian Rot at the Heart of Universities

The greatest threat to democracy on many campuses has turned out to be the schools’ own trustees and administrators.

A demonstrator holds a placard saying "Students for a Free Palestine" as others gather in front of the White House to show solidarity with Palestinians and demand an immediate ceasefire for Gaza, in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 2024.

Part of the Series

The May 20, 2024, cover of The New Yorker by cartoonist Barry Blitt depicts a zip-tied graduate receiving her diploma on stage while accompanied by police. The image reflects a truth that has been laid bare in recent weeks: University students who dare to disrupt the day-to-day operations of their universities to voice opposition to the U.S.-backed genocide in Gaza will be punished. In demanding that their universities divest from the Israeli occupation and U.S. weapons manufacturers, these brave students have been branded as collaborators with “terrorists,” and treated as enemies of the state.

The characterization of pro-Palestine student protesters as “antisemitic,” “self-hating Jews,” or worse as “terrorist sympathizers,” comes with a return of McCarthyism and the all too familiar post-9/11 surveillance landscape — in short, we are experiencing the triumph of the national security state. The criminalization of student protesters and police in riot gear violently arresting students and faculty is no longer a rare scene, but has become the new face of U.S. universities.

And this is not any imagined dystopian novel, but the narrative of our times. Henry Giroux, a professor at McMaster University, calls this present moment “a more dangerous form of McCarthyism [that] has returned with a vengeance.” Democratic universities that are mission-driven and not profit-driven — whose function has always been to encourage open and free inquiry and debates, and to adhere to the principles of academic freedom and shared governance — are virtually all dead. We have entered a grim time where students, faculty and staff are all at the mercy of corporations called “universities” — where we are being aggressively regulated by outside entities in service of their ideological agendas and bottom line. One example of this return to McCarthyite hearings, reprisals and sanctions is the congressional hearings in which lawmakers grilled three university presidents in December 2023, and a fourth in April 2024, on supposed antisemitism on campuses in wake of pro-Palestine student protests. Following those hearings, which politicians on both sides of the aisle have deemed a blockbuster success, three additional university presidents testified before Congress on May 23, 2024. (The presidents were described by committee chairwoman Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx as “mealy-mouthed, spineless college leaders.”) Among the three presidents who testified on May 23, the presidents of Rutgers and Northwestern, who according to the Committee on Education and the Workforce, have made “shocking concessions” to the pro-Palestinian student protesters, entered the stage of another political theater.

Both presidents stood by their decisions to negotiate with the protesters rather than resorting to law enforcement. While Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik grilled Northwestern University President Michael Schill and gave him an “F” grade and blamed him for “failing to protect Jewish students,” while inaccurately invoking the specter of an “antisemitic, pro-Hamas mob on Northwestern’s campus,” Jonathan Halloway, president of Rutgers University, made himself clear: “What I have said in response is that we talked with Rutgers students. They were, for the most part, New Jersey students: born in our state, educated in our high schools and enrolled at their state university. They were not, as some have characterized them, terrorists; they were our students.”

Yet these authoritarian and McCarthyite transformations have not happened overnight, or since October 7, 2023. Modern universities have been transforming for quite some time now into institutions that serve only the interests of the corporations and the techno-bureaucratic class that serves them. The various austerity measures, collaborations with tech companies and corporations and large real estate holdings, exploitation of contingent laborers, erosion of shared governance and right-wing backlash against academic freedom are all features of the neoliberal universities. The recent student protests and arrests all over the country and the reaction of those who control the neoliberal corporatized universities — namely, the multibillion-dollar boards of trustees, their corporations and their puppets (the presidents) — have unmasked their sole purpose, i.e. to protect the financial interests of a few (the 1 percent) at the cost of causing harm to the very students and faculty they ought to protect. In an open letter to Columbia University’s President Minouche Shafik, UCLA professor Robin D. G. Kelly called her decision to unleash the police against student protestors “draconian, unethical, illegal, and dishonest actions toward your own students and faculty.” Yet all these draconian and dishonest actions are being conducted under the false pretext of maintaining “civility,” “democracy,” “free speech” and “safety.”

The neoliberal university has also unmasked another issue. Just like in corporate America, universities’ commitment to diversity, equity, Inclusion and justice (DEIJ) initiatives has become a lie. Rather than protecting the most vulnerable, this million-dollar industry has been nothing but a public relations campaign disaster, a farce for over two decades now, and the issue of Palestine has fully exposed the empty promises of DEIJ. From the firings of DEI officers and employees, to violations of free speech, to suspending faculty for speaking up or writing pro-Palestinian essays, the truth is becoming clear.

The very disciplines that have been instrumental in promoting intellectual diversity on college and university campuses, like Black studies; women, gender and sexuality studies; ethnic studies; Indigenous studies, refugee and genocide studies; and various disciplines within the humanities and social sciences have been routinely devalued, disenfranchised, cut and destroyed. And now, because of the recent student protests, campus unrest and activism, the knowledge gained from these disciplines are being inaccurately slandered by both the right and many Democrats as “antisemitic” and also accused of mimicking the various anti-colonial and decolonial struggles during the first half of the 20th century.

Faculty and students must wrest control of institutional priorities from trustees and administrators who see the university as a place for profiteering, not learning.

Under the false pretext of “security concerns,” University of Southern California even cancelled the valedictorian speech of Asna Tabassum, a pro-Palestinian Muslim student. Tabassum, a biomedical engineering major with a minor in resistance to genocide, expressed how she is “not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university — my home for four years — has abandoned me.” On May 10, 2024, Tabassum shared with the Daily Trojan the speech she had hoped to deliver.

On the other side of the country, Harvard Corporation ruled that 13 Harvard students cannot graduate due to their participation in the pro-Palestinian encampments on campus. The Harvard Crimson reported how Faculty of Arts and Sciences overwhelmingly voted to allow the seniors to graduate, and yet these votes were rejected by the Harvard Corporation. University of Chicago is also withholding the degrees of four students (citing student conduct codes) who participated in pro-Palestinian protests. One of the four students at Chicago whose degree is being withheld is Youssef Hasweh, who has family in the West Bank.

Once again, another brave student, commencement speaker Shruthi Kumar, went off script in her address titled “The Power of Not Knowing” as she reprimanded the Harvard Corporation. In her address she criticized openly Harvard’s decision to withhold the degrees of 13 of her peers and disallowed them from participating to walk at commencement for their participation in campus pro-Palestinian activism.

“I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and their right to civil disobedience on campus,” she continued. “The students had spoken. The faculty had spoken. Harvard, do you hear us?”

“Harvard, do you hear us?” she repeated.

In response, Kumar received a standing ovation from her peers. Kumar’s words have resonated with hundreds and thousands of student protesters and faculty across the country who have stood up against the neoliberal universities and the punitive measures these universities have taken against pro-Palestinian activists on their college/university campuses, shutting down dialogues under the façade of maintaining safety and security.

The false promises of the neoliberal universities are being exposed in real time. Rhetorics of “inclusion” and “care” promoted by the administrative apparatus are coexisting with authoritarian crackdowns on actual democratic politics. While protesters who are organizing against Palestinian genocide and demanding that universities divest are viewed by administrations as “disruptive,” mass arrests of these protesters authorized by the administrators are being touted as “acts of care and protection.”

We, and others on the left of course, know the malevolent actions universities will take when its neoliberal structures are attacked, that this is how neoliberalism works. Now the rest of the U.S. and the world sees this as well.

Let’s be clear.

Our universities are neither interested in protecting the academic freedom of student protestors (whatever their views), or those who have joined the pro-Palestinian protests all over the country. Instead, trustees and administrators are interested in protecting their endowments. The implications of police in riot gear and on horses at UT-Austin, Atlanta police violently arresting Emory students and faculty to clear the Gaza solidarity encampments and the hospitalization of Steve Tamari, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who was beaten by police during a pro-Palestine protest, are glaring. The routine surveillance, cancelled commencements and suspensions of faculty who have joined the students protests or have spoken up against Israel’s brutality are signs of the rise of authoritarian universities across the country.

The neoliberal university is managed by authoritarians, although the Democratic president of our country keeps saying, “We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent,” but “neither are we a lawless country. We are a civil society and order must prevail.”

The protests that started at elite universities have shone a light on the profit-driven missions of these universities in the neoliberal age. Digital creator and journalist Arun Gupta on a Facebook posting said quite aptly, “Elite universities are hedge funds attached to real-estate empires run by right-wing billionaires with lucrative research arms enmeshed with the military-surveillance state and a side hustle in education that make their vast holdings tax free.” Citing U.S. News and World Report, Gupta revealed the “15 National Universities with the Biggest Endowments” –– endowments that are larger than “the gross domestic product of some countries, including Nicaragua, Iceland and Senegal, per World Bank data.”

We do not know what the ultimate results of these campus protests, whose scale and spread has not been seen in the United States since the era of the Vietnam War, will be.

Will universities be pushed to disclose their investments and divest from companies with ties to the government of Israel, as many of these protesters have demanded? Will students and faculty be able to reclaim many of the powers of governance and decision-making that have, for decades, been gradually accrued by corporatized boards of university trustees and the administrators who answer to them? Will the university presidents (who have put their own students and faculty in harms ways by inviting armed police to campuses, backed by their board of trustees) ultimately resign? Will the boards keep ignoring overwhelming votes of “no confidence” cast by their faculty to remove administrators who have failed to protect students and faculty? Will the boards uphold their fiduciary responsibilities of protecting their institutions by first protecting their own students and faculty?

One thing, however, is already clear: These protests and the violent reaction to them by administrators and police — what academics call “The Palestine Exception” — exposes the fundamental, morally bankrupt logic of the neoliberal university. This logic treats students as customers, buying a product whose increasingly high and unaffordable price is said to be justified by the promised experience, which more and more reflects investments into the institution’s hospitality function rather than its educational mission. It is a logic that tells faculty, staff and students that they are part of a family, with an obligation to nurture community and belonging — and to passively accept the low pay, extractive schedules, high tuition costs, and poor working and learning conditions imposed upon them by administrators in return. Especially in the aftermath of the 2020 protests against police brutality in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, universities have embraced the rhetoric of “diversity, equity and inclusion,” a slogan imported from strategies first developed in the corporate world to frame diversity as good for business in response to right-wing backlash against affirmative action policies.

But any time students and faculty break out of the “customer” / “content deliverer” roles that financialized universities expect them to passively inhabit, they have to be policed — indeed, violently if necessary — back into what administrators consider their proper remit. Faculty and students are encouraged by institutions to “change the world” and “make it more just” through teaching, research and community engagement, but the unspoken corollaries are: not here and now on this campus at this moment, where administrators have already proclaimed the institution to be “diverse,” “equitable” and “inclusive”; and never in a manner that poses any meaningful challenge to the existing political and financial order of the university itself.

The “inclusion” of students, faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds in the university “family” is predicated upon the militant policing and regulation of their speech and behavior by an expansive administrative bureaucracy, backed by the threat and — as we have seen in the attacks on student and faculty protests by police at the behest of university officials — the reality of state violence. The project of the neoliberal university is to frame deeply disempowering and coercive institutional practices — policing, surveillance through learning management systems and CCTV, for example — as acts of “care,” “community” building and “safety.”

In the light of rising state violence and surveillance at the hands of an increasingly militarized police force, and violations of academic freedom and free speech rights within universities, it is worth asking, is there a way forward? If so, what does this forward-facing future look like?

There should be no return to the pre-protest status quo. Rather than reinstitute the placid neoliberalism that prevailed before the crackdown, universities must be thoroughly democratized. Faculty and students must wrest control of institutional priorities from trustees and administrators who see the university as a place for profiteering, not learning. Campus police must be abolished. And academic freedom and shared governance must be reasserted as a bedrock principle of the university. Just as pro-Palestinian students, faculty and community members have independently organized graduation ceremonies, transforming the graduation process into “The People’s Graduation,” universities must be reclaimed by the “people” instead of being controlled by corporate logics and actions whose interests focus on profit instead of people.

It is too soon to tell whether the academic protestors will successfully push their universities to divest, but whether they intended to or not, they have exposed in a visceral manner the authoritarian rot at the heart of the neoliberal universities. Institutions that ought to be foundational to democratic society have been revealed before the world as run by authoritarians with a deep contempt for justice, democracy, free speech, open debate and academic freedom. It turns out the big threat to U.S. college students wasn’t ChatGPT, “wokeness” or TikTok — it was their own administration trying to protect its “brand” rather than their well-being.

Will what has started at U.S. universities change the world for the better? Will the words of poet Pablo Neruda come true? “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot stop the spring from coming.”

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $34,000 in the next 4 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.