The board of trustees meeting at the University of Pennsylvania had barely started when about 75 student protesters in the room began chanting loudly.
“Which side are you on now? Which side are you on?”
They were there last month to demand a town hall session with university leaders to discuss students’ years-long campaign to get Penn to divest its endowment from fossil fuels, citing danger to the environment.
University employees asked the students to be quiet. Board members tried to talk over them. Students just got louder. The trustees eventually ended the meeting and left. (A university spokesperson said the board passed all the resolutions on its agenda and completed its business.)
The episode was far from unique at Penn — or elsewhere.
Climate-change protesters last month disrupted the Yale-Harvard football game, storming the field during halftime and causing an hour-long delay. Police cited dozens for disorderly conduct.
At Swarthmore College last spring, protesters seeking an end to Greek life staged a days-long sit-in at a fraternity house.
Last May, seven protesters, including four students, were arrested at Johns Hopkins University after they took over the main administration building and chained the doors shut, demanding that the university cancel plans to create a private university police force and end contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
And in October, protesters at Penn were so disruptive that the university canceled a speech by former ICE Director Thomas Homan after he took the stage.
The stakes are high, explained Emma Glasser, a Penn sophomore who helped lead the fossil fuels protest.
“As a student, it’s our duty in a way to make sure that we hold our institutions accountable,” she said. “This institution is doing some things that are really harmful to our lives, our futures, but really to a lot of the world.”
College students have been protesting the world’s perceived injustices for decades. Sit-ins, shutdowns and other aggressive tactics were always part of the toolbox. But now, with a renewed energy, they appear to be happening more, their intensity up an octave.
“The more aggressive protest tactics reflect a crisis in authority and a demand for immediate, urgent action,” said Jason Del Gandio, an associate professor in Temple University’s department of communication and social influence.
He cited “a president who caters to white nationalists,” “overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change” and “a trillion-dollar student debt” as among issues fueling unrest.
The country’s divisive political climate has contributed to a “new wave of student activism,” said Neal Hutchens, professor and chair of the higher education department at the University of Mississippi and coauthor of The Contested Campus: Aligning Professional Values, Social Justice, and Free Speech.
“Our society in general has a lot of polarization that has come through in recent years and this is also taking place on our college campuses,” he said.
The protests have left college leaders grappling with how to balance students’ right to protest with the rights of others. The optics of having students arrested or removed could be damaging, but allowing events to be shut down has consequences, too.
“What campuses are all about is the robust exchange of viewpoints and communication,” said Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Education. “If you prevent the exchange, you have prevented what the educational experience is intended to deliver.”
Jonathan Zimmerman, a Penn professor of history of education, drew a distinction between shutting down speakers and the protest at the board meeting. He said that, in the past, faculty vociferously condemned the shutdown of speakers. That still happens, such as at the University of Chicago, which in 2015 released a statement calling for “free, robust, and uninhibited debate” on campus.
But it’s not happening enough, he said.
“The faculty has been mostly — and notice I said ‘mostly’ — quiet about it,” he said.
Free speech, he said, has “unfortunately and incorrectly” been cast on many campuses as a politically conservative value, and many faculty don’t want to be seen as consorting with that camp.
“All of this is an enormous error," he said. "It’s a historical error.”
At Bucknell University, a group of professors who have brought in conservative speakers have become increasingly concerned about pushback.
Most recently, the group faced criticism for hosting Heather Mac Donald, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute and author of The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture.
“Some students felt they were being morally shamed just for going and hearing what she had to say,” said Alexander Riley, a sociology professor who helped bring her to campus.
Protesters did not disrupt her talk. They stood across the street.
“Her being brought to campus as a respectable speaker in a modern world is pretty ridiculous,” said Griffin Perrault, 19, a sophomore from Harwinton, Conn.
Complicating the issue for campus leaders, protests have become more visible through social media, which also has enhanced groups’ ability to organize.
In 1973, a famous five-day sit-in at Penn’s College Hall led to the establishment of the school’s women’s center. Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia and a lifelong activist, was a junior at the time and among the organizers. Students were protesting rape on campus and demanded administrators provide protection, including better security and lighting, a campus shuttle service, and self-defense classes. The students won on almost every front.
But there’s no comparison to today’s activism, she said.
“The potential of communication now is so much more magnified from when we were doing this,” she said. “It was all word-of-mouth and fliers.”
Penn has long been a campus where students take strong stands. There’s a student-authored “disorientation guide” that knocks Penn for perceived injustices it fosters and tells students how to get involved for change.
The controversy over fossil fuels has been going on for years. Penn trustees in 2016 decided not to divest, asserting that the industry isn’t a “moral evil.” That hasn’t stopped students from staging sit-ins outside president Amy Gutmann’s office.
Stepping up their approach, students descended on the trustee meeting in early November. At first, they stood silently, holding signs. Then they became vocal.
“We demand a town hall because the impact of the fossil fuel industry is genocidal,” they said in unison.
Days later, Provost Wendell Pritchett sent a stern email to protesters, who had swiped their student IDs to enter the meeting.
“Disrupting the meeting, and continuing to disrupt it after repeated warnings, clearly violates the open expression guidelines,” he wrote. Doing so again, he wrote, could result in disciplinary action, including “a permanent notation” on a student’s transcript.
To some protesters, that might qualify as a badge of honor.
“We are going to be escalating,” vowed Glasser, the Penn student, who is from Princeton. “We are going to be taking bigger and more risky actions until they give us our demands.”
Students at other universities are just as adamant.
Harvard and Yale have been ground zero for direct action by students this year on several fronts. This month, a union of graduate students at Harvard went on strike and won support from student protesters after they failed to reach a labor agreement with the school.
In October, immigration activists at Harvard made headlines for boycotting the Crimson, the student newspaper, because a reporter — in following standard journalistic practice — asked ICE for comment after a protest.
“Every day there’s another protest,” said Amanda Chan, 24, a third-year law student at Harvard from York, Pa.
Chan is involved with the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, an initiative that aims to sever financial ties between Harvard and “the prison-industrial complex.” She said the core group of 10 to 15 students has used strategies, including repeatedly disrupting talks on campus, some of which were with the university president. (The school has said its endowment and investments are apolitical.)
“What people have to remember,” Chan said, “is that you as a collective body of students have a lot of power, and it’s not unreasonable — in fact, it should be expected — that the president answers to you.”