31 May 2024

Patrizia Nanz, president of the European University Institute, has responded constructively to protesters on campus. As she suggests politely in this article from The Guardian, other presidents should do the same.

I run a university – people like me should be backing students’ right to protest over Gaza

Patrizia Nanz

The brutal repression of student protests from Amsterdam to Los Angeles is exposing failings at the heart of our universities

Across the world, university students have set up encampments to protest against the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza and put pressure on academic institutions and governments. Whatever one thinks of their message and of their requests, their moral indignation in the face of avoidable human suffering is one we should all be able to share.

I find it inspiring that this student movement has been spearheaded by a generation that was too quickly labelled apolitical and self-absorbed. Think about it: these students grew up in the bleak post-9/11 world, with a future foreclosed by the 2008 financial crisis and the climate meltdown. They are still reeling from two years of pandemic that have taken a heavy educational and emotional toll. Still, this generation has succeeded in organising a global movement that is coordinated, smart and humane. It deserves much better than condescension.

The encampments and most of the protests have been largely peaceful, yet they have at times been brutally repressed. As a university president in Italy, I have watched with dismay the scenes of violence that have unfolded at universities from Amsterdam to Los Angeles and Sydney. It was good to see some of my counterparts, such as the presidents of Brown and Wesleyan in the US, engage constructively with the students and even accept some of their requests. However, they remain exceptions that underscore how far most academic institutions have drifted away from their main constituency.

Global movements are complex and dynamic phenomena. In the jet stream of slogans they churn out, some may be contentious or even unreasonable. Yet single slogans rarely capture the meaning of such large-scale protests. What matters are fundamental principles.

It seems to me that the student protests are driven by an attachment to peace and human life. This is what makes the repressive reaction of many academic administrations so shocking. Anyone attached to the idea of university as a place of free intellectual inquiry and self-fulfilment can only feel sadness seeing the recent pictures of the empty Columbia University Morningside campus barricaded behind police lines. Ironically, western universities without students have become the mirror image of Palestinian students without universities. Something has gone terribly wrong. But what?

When researchers and students from the European University Institute, where I work, set up camp in Florence alongside their peers from other universities across Tuscany, I saw this as an opportunity to take stock and clarify the fundamental principles that should inform academic debate. Such clarity is critical if we want to navigate these challenging times together.

The EUI is a postgraduate university with students and researchers from around the world, including many who are Jewish and Muslim. I was heartened to see all of them side by side when I visited the encampment in Florence’s Piazza San Marco. I am committed to ensuring that their university remains a space where they can all feel included while exercising their freedom to the fullest. This includes asking difficult and contentious questions, with no restriction other than intellectual rigour and respect for the dignity of those involved.

While it is essential to keep the focus on the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza and on the Israeli hostages held by Hamas, I am also struck by what this movement says about the state of universities. It reveals a deep rift between students and administrations. The latter have grown hugely over the past decades and become massive bureaucracies, also generating their own corporate interests. The voices of students and faculty have been gradually marginalised in the process, making productive dialogue often difficult.

Whether or not one agrees with the students’ demands, they are right to take administrators to task when they ask for transparency about their university’s financial and corporate ties. This should be standard practice and not a discussion prompted by a crisis. It strikes me that there is hardly any debate when European universities accept funding from an external donor, in contrast to the furore when students demand its suspension. It is also in the interest of academic institutions to have a comprehensive picture of their “political economy” – the networks of power and influence that they are part of. This picture is often lacking, not because of deliberate opacity but because of organisational complexity. Making a university’s political economy available for discussion with students and faculty staff is vital to ensure universities do not compromise our principles when engaging with external partners.

The student movement also gives us an opportunity to overcome the tensions between academic freedom and diversity, equality and inclusiveness (DEI) policies. Ironically, universities demanded a “safe space” to justify the repression of students’ Gaza protests and to curtail their freedom of speech. It is true that some Jewish students have claimed they no longer felt safe or welcome due to what they perceived as antisemitic messages at the protests, despite the presence of many other Jewish students at encampments worldwide. Such sentiments must be heard, not least because they can reveal deep ethical and intellectual flaws in the protesters’ messages. Yet we must also be vigilant about the academic culture: when we say that universities must be a “safe space”, this is not only true in terms of physical and emotional integrity (which are paramount) but also in terms of intellectual integrity: a university is a space in which one can be, and should be, safely challenged, rather than confirmed in their convictions.

The encampment I’ve visited is a diverse, egalitarian and inclusive space. It shows that it is only by practising academic freedom, usually around the most difficult questions, that these principles become meaningful. They must inform, not limit, our discussions.

Writing in 1967 about truth and politics in the New Yorker, Hannah Arendt reminded us of our responsibility as citizens to create a public space ourselves, but also of “the joy and the gratification that arise … out of acting together and appearing in public”. The protesting Gen Z students are putting this into practice, and they deserve to be heard.

  • Prof Patrizia Nanz is president of the European University Institute