University Responses to Student Protests

Anti-Principle, Anti-Ethical, and Anti-Academic


Nanette Elster, JD, MPH

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University Responses to Student Protests: Anti-Principle, Anti-Ethical, and Anti-Academic
Topic(s): Cultural Global Ethics Policy Politics

No matter your views about the chaos in the world around us, what we, as bioethicists, have been witnessing at Columbia University should be of concern. By way of full disclosure, I am not only an academic bioethicist but the parent of a graduating senior at Columbia University. By allowing police to remove protesters, a renowned academic institution defied the very foundational principles upon which our profession is based. Autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice were all disregarded by the disproportionate and violent actions wrought by Columbia University administration and the NYPD. In upholding these essential tenets, ethicists are trained to listen, elicit clarification, and facilitate discourse among stakeholders. According to the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) Code of Ethics, healthcare ethics consultants seek “to promote ethically sound decision making by facilitating communication among key stakeholders, fostering understanding, clarifying and analyzing ethical issues, and including justifications.” Now, it would be naïve to expect university administrators to follow the tenets of our field. Yet, at least attempting to follow our field’s principles would go a long way to restoring trust. 

I’ve listened intently to the impressive, educated, and highly professional young journalists at the Columbia radio station WKCR report live from the field as the only journalists inside the campus gates. Putting themselves at risk physically, academically, and legally, I marveled at their fortitude and willingness to uphold the values of the First Amendment. I also recognized the danger of misinformation and disinformation perpetuated by pundits and others with an agenda unrelated to the issue at hand. 

The way that Columbia and many other academic institutions have managed recent student protests has resulted in vilification of students, increasing rather than decreasing unrest, and damaging the long-standing reputation of higher education as a space for thoughtful, albeit at times disagreeable, dialogue. Academic freedom still matters, despite the response of University President Shafik when grilled by aggressive members of Congress. Her recent actions in calling on police to clear a non-violent protest with little discourse with protesting students (or other students and faculty), does nothing to advance higher education and everything to advance the agenda of politicians and wealthy donors. 

The suppression of dialogue by bringing police onto campus has put all students in harm’s way as well as the entire surrounding residential neighborhood of Morningside Heights. This approach is ultimately disruptive and silences what began as a non-violent expression of disagreement with policies of investment and expansion of the University (to which students have a much more vested interest than any of the external groups President Shafik has been seeking to satisfy). 

While many current donors may be threatening to or actively withdrawing their financial support of the university as a result of disagreements with the protestors’ views, Columbia has a bigger problem. It is now at even greater risk of losing the future support of its many students who will become future alumni donors. It is also causing irreparable damage to the role of higher education (and Columbia’s own reputation), more generally, by discouraging critical thinking and civil discourse, not to mention traumatizing hundreds of students and bystanders in the process. 

Students are the most important constituents of any university—not donors, not the government, and not students’ parents. This is similar to an ethics consult where the patient is the most important constituent, not clinicians and not hospital administrators. As such, students’ voices (like patients’) matter. That requires creating and promoting a setting in which students are not only listened to but heard. The administration should not assume a role of adversary and should instead take on a role of supporter and guide, and recognize that the students being educated will eventually become the leaders of our communities, including universities. 

As I have listened live to WKCR regarding recent events at Columbia, I thought about the process and purpose of ethics consultation of which so many of us are familiar. I thought about how poor communication, hierarchy, and bias can often lead to conflicts that result in the need for ethics consults. I thought about how the four principles – autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice—to which we often turn to in trying to promote patient autonomy, avoid clinician burnout, and respect the dignity of all involved requires a delicate and thoughtful balance. As I watched in horror as hundreds of police with batons, riot gear and zip ties descended upon a comparatively small group of students, traumatizing not only those within the walls of the University but those outside, I could not help but think where are autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice? When did disagreement (without violence) become dangerous? When did aggression and silencing voices become a safety measure? Why is it that so many celebrated the student protests in Iran and Tiananmen Square but not student voices in the US? When did we revert to paternalism without discourse? When did we forget that violence begets violence? In this fraught environment, might a shared decision-making approach have led to a better outcome? 

If we cannot protect our students who are poised to become our next leaders, and if we as academics do not think students are educated enough to express their goals and values and take a position that bears hearing out, how will our profession and so many others continue to flourish? What happened at Columbia has caused me to fear for the role and independence of higher education in protecting students, protecting free speech and academic freedom, and encouraging rational discourse with those who may have opposing viewpoints. In July of 2023, ASBH issued a statement supporting academic freedom recognizing that: “Academic freedom supports pluralism and the free exchange of ideas and is important to all fields of study.” During tumultuous times such as these, we must be stalwart in upholding this ideal not only among bioethicists but more broadly as well. What has come of one decision in capitulation to those external to the world of academia will reverberate far beyond our ivied walls and for years to come, causing damage beyond measure. 

Nanette Elster, JD, MPH is an Associate Professor at Loyola University, Stritch School of Medicine.

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