Future protests at Rutgers may take on a different look than they have in previous years, all thanks to the decisions of administrators regarding the university’s disruption policy. However, a big question to consider is: Will protests still be as effective while adhering to these new guidelines? Well, that remains to be seen.
In April, the Rutgers Board of Governors revised the policy on disruptions on university property. First adopted in 1974, the policy provides directions for addressing these situations and outlines the differences between expression and disruption. The policy statement reads, “The right of freedom of expression at Rutgers is protected. However, the University has long recognized that the right of free expression does not include the right to engage in conduct that disrupts the University’s operations or endangers the safety of others.”
The policy then goes on to define disruptive conduct and list examples of this behavior, such as obstructing vehicular, bicycle, pedestrian, and other traffic. It also extends the authority to declare activities as disruptive to the chancellors of the New Brunswick, Camden, and Newark campuses or any designee, which requires them to notify demonstrators of their violation of the policy and take appropriate action to contain the disruption. The policy also calls upon members of the Rutgers community with any knowledge of disruptive activity to report it to their respective dean of students.
These changes come after a series of protests at Rutgers which were aimed at critiquing President Trump’s policy plans. One such demonstration happened in the week following the election on the College Avenue campus. According to a report from NJ.com, more than a thousand Rutgers students and staff convened at Voorhees Mall to protest President Trump’s claims to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants. Titled “Sanctuary Campus,” the purpose of the march was to ensure that Rutgers students and staff would receive the proper protection and support against the president’s ambitions. The large size of the demonstration caused the cancellation of several classes and required the closing of some streets as Rutgers police escorted the crowd though the campus. Similar protests took place at Rutgers during the following months, including one in January which protested Trump’s travel ban.
The revision to the disruption policy was met with some backlash from several Rutgers students and faculty members, including David Hughes, Vice President of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers. In the proceedings of the June 15th Board of Governors meeting, they voiced their disappointment with the restrictions of the updated policy and asked that the changes be rescinded as they seemingly limit the freedom of expression on campus, as seen in a video provided by New Brunswick Today.
In addition to his presence at the administrative meeting, Hughes has also penned a letter to the governors expressing concerns about the effects of revised policy. “The BOG enacted these changes without the slightest discussion or consultation inside or beyond the University community. The resultant policy threatens to undermine political, religious, and other forms of speech on campus – and, thereby, to narrow the creativity and plurality of opinion characteristic of Rutgers.” Hughes said in his letter.
Universities in the United States have long since been microcosms of the larger social and political movements that affect so many people across the country. One of the purposes of a university is to help students develop their own socio-political views while learning to navigate in a world full of similar or opposing views. A secondary education also helps them acquire the critical thinking skills to question the values and actions of authority figures. The protests against the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War which took place at Kent State University in the 1970s, for example, showed how students dared to challenge the moral justifications for the actions of the President and the military. Rutgers also a long history of students and faculty advocating against injustices, including the civil rights protests in the 60s and divestment from firms doing business in South Africa in the 80s. These events were able to bring major attention to racial, social, and political issues and encourage positive changes that benefited many people throughout history. To liken these events and similar ones like them to just mere “disruptions” trivializes their meaning and undermines the hard work of students and faculty wanting to create a better world.
With all of that in mind, it’s still unclear why the Board of Governors would feel compelled to change the policy. When asked about the necessity of the revisions, Hughes argues that the administration’s refusal to reveal the true reasons for the changes and denial of their potentially negative effects raises some suspicions. “I look at the text and I see that the text is more specific about demonstrations outdoors than it was before, which is where these post-election demonstrations have been taking place, they haven’t been taking place inside classrooms and hallways,” Hughes said in an interview with Voice Magazine. “If the change was not a change, why did they revise the documents at all?” Despite the fact that purpose of the changes still seem ambiguous, their effects on the future of demonstrations and expression at Rutgers will still be felt in the coming years, as they likely won’t be rescinded any time soon. This issue poses an interesting thought: Does Rutgers still claim to embrace its revolutionary spirit or does it value order and compliancy more?