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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Protesting Is Educational Too

What campus protests teach us

The ongoing news about pro-Palestinian encampments on college campuses is bringing up memories for me of when I was an activist on campus. 

It was the mid-1980s, at Georgetown in Washington, DC. To protest South African apartheid and demand divestment from their government, we built shanties out of cardboard and scrap wood on Copley Lawn. (They were much more ramshackle than the campers’ tents students are using now.) 

I remember we established an outdoor classroom to educate each other. Several faculty members taught their classes there. We staged a kind of simulation of apartheid with the races reversed. We marched, rallied, and protested at graduation. We were adamant, maybe self-righteous—just like the students today. 

At the time, we thought the administration was oppressive. But looking back, I think they gave us a fair amount of room. 

The University President, Father Patrick Healy, and the Dean of Students, Jack DeGioia, met with us more than once to listen to our demands. They didn’t budge, but they did listen. Jack warned us that he would call the police if we built shanties. I remember saying, “You do what you have to do and we’ll do what we have to do.” (Definitely self-righteous.)

Jack did eventually call the police to remove us, but there was no riot gear, no shields. He was so concerned about avoiding injury to students that he insisted that the unarmed university security officers do the physical removal. 

Jack—who is now the president of the University—allowed us the space to express our opinions. And about a year later, Georgetown did divest, though they said it had nothing to do with the student protest. (I don’t buy that).

Today’s protests differ in important ways, but the tension around how colleges handle them is familiar. I’m reading about peaceful protests, listening, and negotiations on many campuses. As in my day, lots of professors have shown up to support the students. 

But in echoes of the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1970s, we also see scenes of violent counterprotests and intimidating police actions. 

My own experiences shape my reactions to them. If a protest is peaceful and people are expressing their opinion without hate speech or violence, then why not engage in discourse? That’s what a university is all about: teaching young minds how to do that in a way that’s productive. Learning what kind of leader you want to be. 

This is our future workforce. What are we teaching them about how to resolve disagreements and how to stand up for what they think is morally right? 

What we did at Georgetown has influenced the adult I’ve become, and the work that I do now in organizations.

And when I think about the Georgetown administration’s response, I feel appreciation and admiration. They could have done it differently. They gave us room to grow, say what we had to say. 

When I think of transformational leaders throughout history, I have to admit: it is the job of young people to push us forward as a society.


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