Opinion: Auraria campus response to students protests undermines core values

According to an official arrest statement, 40 people were arrested on the Auraria campus by Auraria Higher Education Police and the Denver Police Department on April 26 after what university leaders described as exhaustive efforts to understand the protesters’ perspectives. About half of those arrested were students with an affiliation to the Auraria campus.

A two-day conversation is less than exhaustive. The events in Denver are now stitched to the arrests of student protesters at Columbia University, Emory University, the University of Southern California, the University of Texas at Austin, and other U.S. campuses

The outrage toward university students escalated after an April 17 Congressional hearing during which time the President of Columbia University, Nemat Shafik, formed a war room after being directed to do something to reset and reclaim Columbia’s campus.

The reset precipitated a militaristic presence of armed police to squash the presence of students accused of antisemitism or students rightly and wrongly characterized as pro-Palestinian protesters. Auraria campus leaders who must make tough decisions adopted the same blueprint in downtown Denver. Knowing my campus, I am sure there was a war room-like conversation.

Each university framed the assaults and arrests of their students as efforts to ensure the safety of the campus community and to fulfill their academic missions. Sadly, leaders on the Auraria campus invoked a 2004 policy that prohibits camping. The students’ intent was not to camp, but to raise concerns and share demands of boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions (BDS) because of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza resulting in the death of more than 25,000 Palestinians in the retaliatory aftermath of a horrific attack on Oct. 7 by Hamas that led to the death of more than 1,500 Israelis and nearly 250 captives in Gaza.

Each explanation provided by university leaders counters the rhetoric of civil engagement. Their authorizations to have students arrested are less than civil, but hostile toward students who are the core of their institutions. To appease their university communities, university leaders described protesters as outside visitors or interlopers. This is the same appeasement used during other recent movements to justify the assault on civil rights. However, a university ID would not have insulated the students from arrests.

Here lies the dangers and challenges moving forward for our university leaders, students, and broader community on the Auraria campus and other Colorado universities. One, acknowledge that antisemitism is real, but so is the pain experienced by Palestinians. Diverse universities and communities must find civil solutions, not militaristic, when pains converge in not so civil ways. Invoking tepid policies that do not fit the demands of the times is less than courageous and will damage free speech, which is a core value of our institutions and society.

Two, dialogue is not always safe when dealing with decade- or century-old challenges as evidenced by the failure to find a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine that has been the nemesis of world leaders. While students never have the right to infringe upon the safety of others, they have the right to engage in forceful and uncomfortable dissent. This dissent should not lead higher education leaders to erode the rights of students.

Third, our struggle toward a better humanity requires empathy, increased understanding, and a tolerance for resistance. Each is a hallmark of democracy.

A pro-Palestine demonstration continues on the Auraria Campus in Denver on April 29, 2024. The day marked the 5th day the demonstrators have camped out in tents in Tivoli Quad near the center of campus. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
A pro-Palestine demonstration continues on the Auraria Campus in Denver on April 29, 2024. The day marked the 5th day the demonstrators have camped out in tents in Tivoli Quad near the center of campus. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Unfortunately, the paroxysm of violence in Gaza, and the assaults and arrests of students on college campuses, including Auraria, indicate that we are failing on all three points. I hope that we seek repair so that students can have the leaders they deserve, and leaders can have the students they desire — students who embrace all that higher education affords as they prepare to become the next generation of leaders.

Alfred W. Tatum is a professor in the School of Education and former provost and executive vice president of Academic Affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Updated May 1, 2024 at 11:57 a.m. This column was updated to reflect that about half of those arrested on the Auraria Campus had a connection to the school as either current or former students or faculty.

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