Public Colleges Struggle to Respond to Occupy Protests

Max Whittaker, Getty Images

Students at the U. of California at Berkeley campus on Tuesday protested in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement and tried to re-establish an Occupy Cal encampment that was shut down by the police last week.
November 16, 2011

Robert J. Birgeneau seemed overwhelmed.

Last week, the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley responded to a violent confrontation between protesters and the police by criticizing the behavior of some of the protesters. On Monday, he had to walk that statement back, saying he was now disturbed by the actions of the police, who had used batons.

On Wednesday, as thousands more protesters rallied on the campus, Mr. Birgeneau held a news conference to announce that a man who brandished a gun in a business-school computer laboratory had just been shot and injured by a police officer.

It is not clear if the shooting was related to the protests, or if the suspect was a student, Mr. Birgeneau said. Nobody died, and the threat was quickly contained. But with helicopters circling overhead, the chancellor clearly felt under siege.

As the news conference ended and reporters filed out, Mr. Birgeneau remained, looking straight ahead. "Now we're there along with Kent State and Virginia Tech," he said softly.

As student protests inspired by Occupy Wall Street have expanded rapidly in recent weeks, Berkeley and some other public universities have struggled to devise an effective response.

All protests require colleges to maintain a difficult balance between encouraging free speech, keeping the campus safe, and managing public perception. But some colleges' responses to attempts by protesters to set up permanent encampments have been particularly fraught with difficulties.

Idaho State University initially appeared to approve a permit for an overnight protest, then tried to limit the protest to daytime hours, and then allowed the overnight protest anyway when demonstrators ignored its instructions. Seattle Central Community College officials told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer they believed they had no legal right to evict scores of protesters from Occupy Seattle—few of them students—who had moved to the campus after being evicted from a city park.

Other universities, including Duke and Harvard, have had more success in limiting, but not attempting to ban, overnight protests and maintaining mostly productive relationships with student protesters. Their strategies offer lessons on how college officials can contain protests, and point to the extra latitude private colleges have in responding to them.


If any college would seem well-positioned to respond to an occupation protest, it would be the University of California at Berkeley, the emblem of campus protest since the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. Just a few years ago, a group of tree-sitters fighting a football-stadium renovation occupied an oak grove for 21 months.

But Berkeley's response to protests over the last week has been problematic. A week ago, Chancellor Birgeneau announced that the university would not tolerate overnight encampments. A 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision clearly allows public entities, such as colleges, to set limits on when protests can occur without necessarily violating protesters' free speech rights.

But enforcing the restrictions set at Berkeley proved difficult.

Last Wednesday, during a heated protest, a group of protesters linked arms to try to prevent police officers from clearing away a group of tents. Videos of the resulting confrontation posted on the Internet show officers hitting a front line of protesters with batons and grabbing them by the hair. One of the protesters grabbed by the police was Celeste Langan, an associate professor of English, who sustained minor injuries that she later called "unnecessary and unjustified."

Chancellor Birgeneau, who was traveling in Asia at the time, sent a message along with other college leaders to the campus the next day that celebrated peaceful disobedience but was sharply critical of some of the protesters. Linking arms to protect the encampment, he wrote, was not a nonviolent form of protest. "We urge you to consider the fact that there are so many time-tested ways to have your voices heard without violating the one condition we have asked you to abide by," he wrote.

The e-mail sparked a firestorm. An informal petition for a no-confidence vote garnered several hundred signatures of professors and graduate students. Activists wondered how Mr. Birgeneau could ignore the videos of how the police responded.

On Monday, Mr. Birgeneau changed his tone. The videos of police activity were "very disturbing," he wrote in a second campus message. A review of police behavior would be conducted. Students who stood in front of the police would be spared student-conduct charges.

"The events of last Wednesday are unworthy of us as a university community," he wrote. "Sadly, they point to the dilemma that we face in trying to prevent encampments and thereby mitigate long-term risks to the health and safety of our entire community."

When asked about the change of heart, Dan Mogulof, a Berkeley spokesman, said Mr. Birgeneau had had "limited Internet access" while in Asia and had been unable to review videos of the protest until Sunday.

"His ability to witness, to access, that first-hand information clearly had an impact on him and his assessment of the situation," Mr. Mogulof said. As time goes on, he said, and "you get more information, it's more detailed, it's more nuanced."

Protecting free speech while maintaining order requires a different response depending on the circumstances of each protest, he said. "Every one generates a new set of learnings. We're committed to maintaining that delicate balance."

Duke and Harvard

Protesters who have camped out at Duke University actually have a lot of respect for campus administrators, says Anastasia Karklina, a student and organizer. Before the protest started, campus officials even suggested a different site for the camp—one with a higher profile but less likely to get in the way of traffic—which the protesters accepted.

Compared to other college protesters, Duke activists have experienced "a very positive and very supportive response from the administrators supporting our right to freedom of speech and our right to peacefully assemble," says Ms. Karklina. Between 10 and 15 students have been camped out since October 22, she says.

Campus officials have made some stipulations, including that only Duke students are allowed to stay at the protest site overnight. Harvard University, which is hosting its own Occupy protest, is attempting to keep nonstudents out of its protest altogether by checking the identification of anybody who enters Harvard Yard.

But Duke officials say they haven't had a reason to check ID's because the protesters have been remarkably well-behaved, especially considering that the protest is very close to the campus chapel.

"They've even asked us to know the wedding schedule at the chapel so they can be particularly sure not to be disruptive during any weddings," said Larry Moneta, Duke's vice president for student affairs. The protest site is pristine, he said, "cleaner than any site that I've seen around campus."

Duke is not Berkeley. The university is private, giving administrators a greater ability to regulate who can be on campus. It doesn't have Berkeley's long history of confrontation between protesters and the university, and Durham, N.C., doesn't have anywhere near as many off-campus activists as the San Francisco Bay Area does.

But the cooperation at Duke shows how the college has managed to find a way to allow an overnight protest, but limit it.

Natalia Abrams, a founding facilitator at Occupy Colleges, a loose national umbrella organization of college Occupy protests, said she didn't initially know how to respond to Harvard's ban of nonstudents from the protest in Harvard Yard. But she realized that the restriction would actually benefit the protest by allowing students to retain control of the message and by keeping out nefarious outsiders.

"The more I thought about it, the more I realized that college students themselves need to feel protected as well," Ms. Abrams said.

It's funny, Ms. Abrams said, that Harvard is being amicable to students, but Berkeley has tried to squelch overnight protest. "The schools you would think would be supportive and the schools that you think wouldn't be—they're kind of switched."