Politics & Media
Apr 29, 2024, 06:27AM

Arresting Professors

An excellent way for colleges to destroy themselves.

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I don't think there are many American professors who could look at what transpired at Emory University last week with equanimity, and what’s liable to unfold now is a kind of war between faculty and administration, at Emory and elsewhere.

In imitation of Columbia, Emory last Thursday called the cops on a group of its students, who were camped out on campus in a protest against what they take to be a genocide in Gaza, demanding, for example, that the university divest from arms manufacturers. Early on, the cops managed to arrest the chair of the Philosophy Department, Noelle McAfee, as she walked supportively through the demonstration. McAfee, who previously taught at Brandeis and George Mason, is a specialist in the theory of democracy (she's for it) and (for heaven's sake) conflict resolution.

When the administration is having department chairs arrested, a university is in a conceptual and practical mess.

Even more dramatic than McAfee's was the arrest of economics professor Caroline Fohlin, who made the evident mistake of addressing a police officer who was violently restraining a student: "My God, what are you doing?" That was enough to make two officers take Fohlin to the ground, bashing her head and twisting her arm to restrain her, and then haul her off.

The fact that Fohlin is a smallish middle-aged professor-person ("I'm a professor!" she kept saying) might appear to be irrelevant to you, or maybe it's kind of bratty even to bring it up, and smallish white women who commit crimes should be treated just like large black men. I agree! However, Fohlin was committing no crime whatsoever (it would be funny to watch them try to work out “trespassing”).

She was shocked, and I was shocked by her treatment. Every damn professor in America was, and we all saw it on “academic social media”: dozens of posts featuring the arrests of McAfee and Fohlin flowed by on my X feed that day, and the next, and the next.

Maybe “I'm a professor” registers a certain privilege, but it's a real privilege attributed to faculty by administrators. As you arrive and every semester after, they tell you, "This is your place; you perform the most important function here; and you run it too, because we have faculty governance." The ultimate authority on most campuses, no doubt, is the board of trustees. But the day-by-day academic decisions have to come from or through the faculty Senate. As a prof, you have the run of the place: your key card gets you into every building. You're welcome anywhere, really.

So you've been told, maybe for decades. You feel entirely at home on the campus; it's your place. You know everyone, seemingly. You've taught dozens or hundreds of the students milling around.

When they say you're "trespassing," that seems incomprehensible. And when the administration calls the cops on you and the cops violently restrain and arrest you, you're liable to see your understanding of your institutional role dissolving instantly. It's hard to grasp how Emory and any other institution that has been arresting faculty can recover from these events. One thing's for sure: it will be a long road.

In the usual end-of-year (May) and at the beginning-of-the-year (September) faculty meetings, administrators including the president will come before the faculty with various updates. How does next year's class look? How's the budget going? In this case, the people in the audience will have been subjected directly to violent arrest and restraint on expression by those very administrators. I don't think Emory can have a faculty meeting successfully for the next couple of years. That would be a problem at a university. Emory—along with schools such as Vanderbilt and Rice, often thought of as "Southern Ivies"—will be in crisis for the foreseeable future.

One question I had about all these events was finally answered last Friday. If the administration of a college calls the cops on its students or faculty, do the police have to respond? If Columbia president Minouche Shafik calls the NYPD and asks them to clear a peaceful campus encampment, is the NYPD under any obligation to determine whether a crime has been committed or public safety threatened, or do they simply do whatever college administrators ask them to do? If the latter: are you kidding?

It turns out that local municipal police forces don’t have to take orders from the provost. There was a small and by all accounts peaceful protest encampment at George Washington University in DC last week. GW, in imitation of Columbia and other schools, had been disciplining protesters, removing and suspending them. But when they called the DC police to have the encampment taken down, the police declined. Reports indicate that as the cops prepared to enter the encampment at three a.m., they were ordered by the mayor's office to stand down.

Coverage emphasized that the DC police were concerned by the "optics" of arresting students on campus, and indeed the crackdowns at Columbia, Emory, and elsewhere have just helped the movement metastasize. It's turned most of the professors against most of the administrators. But more than that, if I were the DC police, I'd be asking what crimes are being alleged by administrators and whether basic legal and constitutional rights of protesters were being respected.

"Come arrest these f-ers," says the provost on the 911 call, referring to his own students and faculty. And the reply certainly must be, "For what?" Also, "Who are you to order the municipal police around? We have our own departmental policies." One thing those policies certainly don’t include: violently restraining people for asking, "What are you doing?"

The police in those videos have been portrayed as idiots and monsters all over the internet for days. The Emory administration put the police in that untenable position by calling them in. But the police put themselves in that position by responding. They didn't have to, and Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington just proved that.

However, most other police departments have performed as requested: an approach, so far, with massively counter-productive effects. I don't know what this is going to look like over the summer. But the fall faculty meeting at Emory, if it happens at all, will be a doozy.

Meanwhile, to professors thinking about how to defend themselves from the police and the administration in the wake of the Fohlin assault, you might take on board the universal lesson of Jan 6. Headed to the protest? Bring bear spray.

Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell

  • I was already in favor of these arrests. You don't need to give me this incentive.

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  • The basis for requesting the protesters to leave was that they were trespassing and that looks pretty solid legally. When they didn't leave, the police had a right to remove them. If any were wrongfully arrested, they have rights too. This (lawful arrest) happens many thousands of times every day all over the country. Minus the pearl clutching.

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  • I just copyedited a piece so filled with happy talk about the value of student protests and why administrators should never resist them in any way that I'm feeling like I want to stockpile some teargas.

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  • Now that a few students are occupying the administrative building at Columbia University, while draping an Intifada flag down its facade, I'm wondering how the police are expected to behave if they get called to remove these students. Also, is there actually any doubt about what these students mean by "intifada"? There really isn't, even though a TV reporter tried to tell me today that it doesn't mean what we all know it means. It's all about "context." It's possible to draw a straight line between the fired Harvard prez who recently mentioned this "context" regarding genocide against one group and what is now happening to that group on campuses on both coasts. That was some real foreshadowing.

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