Opinion: Facing pro-Palestinian protests, universities must realize they are businesses – and act like it

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Counter protestors hold Israeli flags as they stand across the street from pro-Palestinian demonstrators at Tulane University in New Orleans on April 29.Chris Granger/The Associated Press

Gus Carlson is a U.S.-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.

The anticipation of trouble hung like the thick bayou humidity over Tulane University in New Orleans last weekend as thousands of graduates and their families gathered for the school’s commencement celebrations.

On benches beneath the campus’s stately moss-covered oaks and at the Boot, the iconic student watering hole where parents and grads pregamed with Jägermeister-and-root beer concoctions called Boot Bombs, the question pecking at many was this: Would the anti-Israel protests that had roiled Tulane for months be rekindled to disrupt this showcase event?

It was not a trivial concern. A significant percentage of Tulane’s student population is Jewish, among the highest of U.S. universities not considered explicitly Jewish.

But there would be no turmoil. Tulane’s administration had pre-empted any attempts by protesters to reprise their bad behaviour. There was significant police presence across the campus, high-risk areas were cordoned off with 20-foot-high chain-link fencing and visitors were advised repeatedly that free speech did not mean the right to disrupt the freedom of others – and that violators would face consequences.

A sad commentary on the current state of campus life? Perhaps, but Tulane’s hard-line posture is a teaching moment for the craven chief administrators in so many ivory towers across academia, as well as in corporate C-suites.

Tulane’s leaders, unlike so many others who have allowed and even enabled protests to plunge their campuses or workplaces into chaos, understand that, at their core, academic institutions are businesses. Their customers are the students and families who buy the product; their investors are the donors and taxpayers who fund the operations. Free expression may be a guiding principle, but it is not a one-way street if it threatens an enterprise’s viability – at least not at Tulane.

In many respects, Tulane’s commencement was the equivalent of a corporate annual meeting. It was a chance for the administration to show the school’s skill in manufacturing its core product – brilliant young minds – and how its steady hand at the helm refuses to be blown off course by the strong winds of current events. This is, after all, a school that has survived for 150 years – even through hurricanes, including Katrina.

A look at the protests of the war in Gaza that have emerged at U.S. universities

For the more than 2,000 grads, who themselves lived through the devastation of Hurricane Ida in 2021, as well as COVID-19, the message from Tulane’s leaders on managing protests sparked by the conflict in Gaza was clear: We’ve got this covered.

Tulane’s is a posture any leader – academic and corporate – should heed. Allowing protests of any kind to put a business at risk would be – or should be – grounds for dismissal, as the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania learned the hard way. In those instances, where leaders failed to condemn pro-Palestinian protests, big billionaire donors pulled their support.

Columbia University cancelled its main commencement ceremonies this month after weeks of disruptive campus protests that culminated in a police raid to oust protesters occupying a building on its Manhattan campus.

The inability or unwillingness of Columbia’s leaders to lead has big consequences for its financial health. Donors are pulling back, students are thinking twice about attending – and parents are balking at paying for it. And there is a movement in the U.S. Congress to stop public funding for schools such as Columbia, which got more than US$1.2-billion in taxpayer money last year, in addition to its rich private endowment of more than US$13.6-billion.

Tulane set the tone early, after a violent clash between students and masked protesters in a pickup truck flying a large Palestinian flag after the Oct. 7 start of the Gaza conflict. The school issued suspension warnings to disruptive students, faculty and staff, shut down an on-campus organization that incited dissent and worked with police to oust professional protesters encamped on the fringes of the campus – in a sense, protecting the business.

The tone remained steady for commencement. Through public address announcements and on giant digital signs inside and outside Yulman Stadium, where the ceremony was held, Tulane’s position was reiterated:

“Tulane University promotes and protects the free exchange of ideas,” the message said. “Freedom of expression includes the ability to engage or not to engage in the exchange, examination, and discussion of ideas. It does not include the right to disrupt the freedom of others.”

Even Tulane’s choice of commencement speaker was smart. Jon Meacham, the presidential historian, delivered a keynote address devoid of political partisanship. He urged the graduates to pursue civil discourse, not disobedience.

There were only a couple of glimpses of the issue. One graduate wore a stole in the colours of the Palestinian flag, but it was drowned in a sea of brightly coloured, Tulane-themed parasols carried by graduates, a school tradition. A small plane towing an Israeli flag buzzed the stadium early in the ceremony but elicited no reaction – positive or negative – from the crowd.

The most notable expression of emotion during the program was the crowd’s reaction to Yolanda Windsay’s soulful rendition of the jazz favourite Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans. Many people wept. But theirs were tears of joy and appreciation for the grads, not sadness and distress about having the moment ruined by protests – a sign that Tulane’s leaders had made the interests of their key stakeholders the top priority.

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