Tuesday, May 28, 2024

"Where Should the Nonprofit World Stand on Campus Protests?"

Pro-Palestine Students Walk Out of Harvard Graduation | Harvard Magazine

Last week, my oldest daughter received her MBA from Harvard Business School -- "HBS" she calls it, as though talking about a sorority.  Her graduation was a really big deal for my entire extended family. All of her ancestors lucky enough to have attended university did so at state schools or underfunded HBCUs like Tennessee State or Lane College. Proudly, of course, but her graduation from Harvard is a whole different world from my grandfather's life of sharecropping.

I took this video of Harvard graduates protesting the during the festivities.  Students and administrators had a "gentleman's agreement" against such protests during commencement, but the day before the ceremonies Harvard's governors said that 13 students facing student conduct charges for civil disobedience would not be permitted to participate.  Instead, those students must await adjudication. They will no doubt be allowed to graduate later, but Harvard's commencement is such a big event that hotels were charging $750 per night. And those were just the cheap hotels. It was a harsh penalty for the protesting students and their families. I have a friend in Boston who put us up for the weekend and my daughter wasn't one of the "Harvard 13."  Anyway, other graduates considered Harvard's last minute action a breach of the agreement and decided to resume protests. 

Before walking out, the protestors held up signs, booed or chanted during the ceremonies.  Not so much, though.  They waited until they began walking out to really start chanting.  Other students in the crowd started beating drums.  Some of my family members indignantly muttered "DeSantis would have shut them all down!" as though Harvard should have done more to prevent what they thought was obscene.  It was "our" big event, after all, and the protestors were ruining it.  My relatives all despise DeSantis, otherwise, and might gladly protest his attacks on critical race theory in similar fashion.  We don't mind the devil when it's the devil he's tormenting, I guess.  I expressed my own hypocrisy by admiring the protestors enough to leave my seat to videotape them, while also feeling grateful and safe that my daughter wasn't involved.  "Don't do anything stupid," I told her a few times during the spring semester.  "Sign a petition, maybe, but don't go buying expensive camping gear."  The public expression of indignation must be tempered by private interest at some point after all.  None of us are immune, we just have different levels of moral tolerance.   

In The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Eboo Patel of Interfaith America scolded nonprofits for "romanticizing" civil disobedience.  Here is some of his opinion:

Many people in the nonprofit and professional social change world, including those who work at institutions with no obvious connections to the war in Gaza, are wondering whether to signal support for the campus protests.  My own view: I dislike war. I dislike violence. I think human beings need to find alternative ways to resolve conflicts. I have felt a despairing helplessness as I watch the ongoing violence in Gaza. I am glad that many young people are demanding that the war end. To the extent that the protests focus on that message, I appreciate them.

But protecting the right to protest, and appreciating some of the protester’s messages, is a far cry from idealizing disruptive demonstrations. Rather than romanticizing the campus encampments, those of us in the nonprofit field should help the budding social change agents leading those protests to think more rigorously about their approaches.  If you, like me, want the war to stop, the famine in Gaza to end, and the hostages to come home, then it’s not at all clear that encampments on elite campuses are the right strategy to achieve those goals.

. . . 

There is an additional consideration for nonprofit leaders. Many of the institutions being disrupted are 501(c)(3) institutions that do important work. When Columbia University tells students, staff, and faculty to stay away from campus, it effectively means that cancer researchers can’t do their jobs. When Columbia and USC cancel their main-stage commencement ceremonies, it means that families can no longer see their children graduate, leaving potentially lasting feelings of disappointment and a reduction in donor dollars that fund scholarships for low-income students.

When we support a disruptive protest, we are effectively saying: the disruption you create in the name of your cause is more important than the regular work of the institution.  A reasonable question to ask then is this: If you support the disruption, do you not believe in the work of the institution? Or, more precisely, which causes justify disrupting a nonprofits important work?

I'm not convinced that civil disobedience is inherently inconsistent with Civil Society even if it is inconsistent with tax exemption. And even if I am happy to see other people's kids do it in this instance.  Civil disobedience is based on natural law thought superior to tax law or anything else codified.  Besides, Patel's argument is easily defeated because it implies that because HBS is doing "good works," it should be immune from protests regarding how it invests its $51 billion endowment.  So I still think that when the cause is just, civil disobedience in pursuit of that cause is justifiable. 

Except that neither Thoreau, Gandhi, nor MLK ever explained how to know whether a cause is just. Ultimately, if nonprofits are willing to suffer the consequences, it's ok with me that they themselves determine whether a cause justifies civil disobedience.

darryll k. jones  


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