On April 24, as students were wrapping up their semester at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, the school’s provost convened an ad hoc committee to discuss a planned protest against the war in Gaza that was set to begin the following day. It was less than a week after Columbia University had called in the NYPD to break up an encampment in Manhattan, arresting more than 100 students, and tensions were running high nationwide. Already, over the winter, Indiana University had suspended a professor for sponsoring a talk by the student Palestine Solidarity Committee and canceled a major retrospective exhibition — in the works for years — by the 87-year-old Palestinian American painter and IU alumnus Samia Halaby, an outspoken critic of the Israeli occupation. 

On the eve of the April protest, without informing faculty or students, the provost’s committee — composed only of members of the administration, including the university’s chief of police and the vice provost for student life — rewrote a longstanding policy governing speech and assembly on campus. Specifically, they prohibited the use of tents or other structures without prior approval. The next morning, students began assembling tents to occupy Dunn Meadow, a large field in the middle of campus that’s been the site of protests going back to at least the 1960s, including an anti-Apartheid ​“shantytown” that stayed up for two semesters in the mid-1980s and an encampment against the first Gulf War that lasted for 45 days. 

But this time, students were told, without explanation, that it wasn’t allowed. When they went ahead anyway, unaware of the new policy, school administrators called in heavily armed state troopers that day. 

In an alarming show of force, snipers armed with rifles were positioned on the roof of the Indiana Memorial Union building overlooking the meadow. By late afternoon, 33 Indiana University students and faculty members had been arrested, charged with criminal trespassing and banned from campus for a year. David Anthony McDonald, a professor of ethnomusicology who was among those arrested, said he only learned of the policy change as troopers brandishing batons and plexiglass shields began advancing on the students. 

“That is everything you need to know about the coordination that was taking place between the IU administration and the state police, with no coordination between the administration and the actual students they are supposed to be protecting,” McDonald said. 

“They reversed a policy of 50 years overnight and then they proceeded to enforce this new policy the next day at the point of a gun.”

Indiana University historian Alex Lichtenstein

It was only late that night, at nearly 10 pm, that IU President Pamela Whitten emailed faculty to explain the creation of the ad hoc committee and its decision. Students were not officially informed until a campus-wide email was sent three days later. While Whitten claimed that the new policy ​“enables us to balance free speech and safety in the context of similar protests occurring nationally,” numerous faculty members pointed out that the administration’s abrupt change of policy and lack of consultation with the wider community is precisely what led to the dangerous confrontation with law enforcement.

IU declined to comment for this story. 

“They reversed a policy of 50 years overnight and then they proceeded to enforce this new policy the next day at the point of a gun,” explained IU historian Alex Lichtenstein in an email. Over more than three decades in academia, and 12 at IU, he wrote, ​“I have never seen anything like this, in any institution I have been a part of.” 

Police brought an armored personnel carrier while arresting activists on the third day of a pro-Palestinian protest camp in Dunn Meadow at Indiana University on April 27. Image: Jeremy Hogan / SOPA Images/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

Indiana is not alone in making sudden changes to policies dictating when and where students can gather and what they can say as the war in Gaza enters its eighth month. As colleges and universities have become the focal point of Gaza protests, at least a dozen have overhauled campus conduct rules in ways that will effectively limit speech and make it riskier to protest. And this marks an abrupt change from the direction academia had been moving in. Over the past decade, universities including Indiana had become more lenient in allowing protests and encampments to stand without resorting to the kind of force we’ve seen recently, in a vivid example of what some call the ​“Palestine exception.” 

Colleges are coming to look more like a police state than institutions of higher learning.

Brian Soucek, a law professor at UC Davis and a member of the American Association of University Professors’ committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, says schools are both clarifying or tightening their rules and making new decisions about how to enforce them. Brown and UC Berkeley, for example, negotiated with students and reached agreements to reconsider divestment from Israel that led to the voluntary dismantling of encampments.

But elsewhere changes to policy have led to the overwhelming use of state power — typically law enforcement dressed in riot gear — to clear encampments on campuses across the country. Policy changes have also led to widespread disciplining of students and faculty through suspensions or expulsions and, in some cases, withholding diplomas. In some cases, it’s prompted the walling off of the university itself. Columbia, for example, was on lockdown through the end of the semester while NYU erected a plywood wall around part of its campus. 

As a result, colleges are coming to look more like a police state than institutions of higher learning. And this is just the beginning. With students leaving for the summer and most encampments removed at least for now, university administrations have the chance to overhaul campus policies and implement newly repressive measures in the fall.

“I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of changes made over the summer,” said Laura Beltz, director of policy reform at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which has been tracking policy changes at colleges and universities since October. ​“I do have concerns that they’re going to be adopting more restrictions in the days to come.” 

“I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of changes made over the summer.”

Laura Beltz, director of policy reform at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE)

Many schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, which recently banned encampments and ​“overnight demonstrations” anywhere on campus, have implemented interim or temporary policies that could be made permanent in the coming months. Others, like the University of Michigan, have floated sweeping new proposals redefining ​“disruptive activity” and introducing new enforcement mechanisms that could be finalized before the fall semester begins. According to Beltz, these overly broad changes could have far-reaching implications for future student movements.

“Rules designed to suppress protests on this particular issue can just as easily be applied to restrict protest on a variety of issues on campus,” Beltz wrote in an email.

Changing policies to target a particular movement or opinion — eschewing so-called viewpoint neutrality — is a violation of the First Amendment, but that appears to be what several universities have done. (The ACLU and FIRE have challenged many of the new policy changes on First Amendment grounds. Public universities, which receive government funding, are bound by the First Amendment while private institutions are not. However private colleges and universities usually have free speech policies that mirror those of their public counterparts.) 

Changing policies to target a particular movement or opinion—eschewing so-called viewpoint neutrality—is a violation of the First Amendment, but that appears to be what several universities have done.

IU’s President Whitten even acknowledged in her email to faculty that the policy change was made in response to student plans to set up an encampment in Dunn Meadow. Shortly after the Hamas attacks of October 7, Columbia created a Special Committee on Campus Safety that, like IU’s ad hoc group, is composed solely of top administrators, with no student or faculty representation. While colleges and universities typically consult student and faculty governing bodies before implementing consequential changes, one of the Columbia committee’s first moves was unilaterally updating the university’s events policy to grant the administration ​“sole discretion” over disciplinary matters — effectively making itself judge and jury. Less than three weeks later, the new policy was used to suspend campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace. (SJP has been suspended or banned from at least half a dozen universities across the country.) 

In May, as protests spread across the country, University of Virginia’s (UVA) Office of Environmental Health and Safety (OEHS) made a last-minute change to its regulations to require administrative approval for any temporary structures erected on campus, whereas previous guidelines had allowed for the recreational use of tents as long as they were under a certain size. Several hours after the policy was altered, UVA’s encampment was cleared and more than two dozen students were arrested. (In a statement, UVA said the OEHS regulations posted on its website in May were out of date and the university was merely clarifying existing policy.)

Columbia University faculty members protect students in the Pro-Palestinian “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on April 29, 2024, in New York City. The students were given a suspension warning if they do not meet the university’s deadline to clear the encampment. Image: Michael Nigro/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

Other changes have been more carefully considered but no less troubling. American University, in a decision widely criticized by civil liberties groups, has banned all indoor protests and established strict new requirements on registering student groups and posting materials such as flyers on campus, which must be ​“welcoming to all students.” This measure would effectively prohibit the dissemination of unpopular or controversial viewpoints. Meanwhile Cornell, Harvard, Franklin & Marshall, Lehigh, Caltech, Barnard and Columbia have all released statements clarifying or updating policies on speech and assembly on campus, many of which will restrict students’ ability to engage in First Amendment-protected activity. 

The crackdown on the Palestinian solidarity campaign is not only taking place within colleges and universities. At the federal level,the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law found, eight new laws have been proposed that would punish students arrested during campus protests, in some cases by revoking visas for non-U.S. students or cutting off financial aid. 

All of this is part of a broader legislative push, at the state and federal levels, to undermine social movements—from the anti-pipeline campaigns of the 2010s to Black Lives Matter and Stop Cop City — by enhancing penalties for common protest-related crimes such as trespassing or blocking traffic. Several states have cited recent protests against U.S. policy on Israel as their motivation for creating stiffer punishments for blocking traffic. In its most extreme form, New York Democrats in the last legislative session put forward a bill that would make blocking a highway or bridge an act of domestic terrorism. Trump, for his part, has reportedly said that, if he’s re-elected, he will deport student protesters and ​“set that movement back 25 or 30 years.

In May, the University of Virginia made a last-minute policy change to require administrative approval for any temporary structures erected on campus. Several hours later, the university’s encampment was cleared and more than two dozen students were arrested.

At the same time, lawmakers are pursuing other measures designed to chill speech on campus. One bill proposed by Reps. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) and Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), the ​“College Oversight and Legal Updates Mandating Bias Investigations and Accountability (COLUMBIA) Act,” would create third party ​“antisemitism monitors” on campuses across the country, which could easily be used to shut down criticism of Israel. Even before the encampments went up, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued an executive order directing all public universities in the state to update their free speech policies, particularly as they relate to antisemitism. Although Abbott’s order was notably vague, he made his intent clear by alleging that Students for Justice in Palestine and the Palestine Solidarity Committee had already violated these yet-to-be-drafted policies and should be disciplined or banished. Not long after, administrators at UT Austin warned students that if they chant ​“From the River to the Sea” — a popular protest slogan signifying a liberated Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean — they will be turned over to law enforcement. 

Meanwhile, Democratic and Republican lawmakers have called for federal investigations of student groups involved in organizing the protests and, according to recent reporting in the Intercept, at least a dozen professors have been threatened with suspension or in some cases fired for speaking out against the war. (In a leaked memo, Columbia University administrators said they had coordinated their response to the encampment with the FBI and had also used private investigators to gather information on student protesters.) But the brutalization of protesters — captured most vividly in videos of older professors being beaten and manhandled by law enforcement at schools from Washington University in St. Louis to Dartmouth, where the former head of the Jewish Studies department was tackled to the ground — has largely served to embolden the student movement. 

At Indiana University, the tents went back up almost as soon as they were removed on April 25. Two days later, the university again called in law enforcement — who arrested another 23 students — and again cleared the encampment. But the tents reappeared. Eventually, as backlash to the administration’s draconian response grew — culminating in calls for the president and provost to resign — the university stopped enforcing the new rule. 

“They keep saying it’s some kind of safety issue about the tents,” IU ethnomusicologist McDonald told me. ​“It’s not about the tents. It’s about stifling pro-Palestinian speech.”

A student holds up the flag of Palestine as the 13 students, who have been barred from graduating due to protest activities, are recognized by a student address speaker during the commencement in Harvard Yard at Harvard University, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Cambridge, Mass. Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Since the initial encampment at Columbia went up on April 17, more than 3,000 students have been arrested across the country and hundreds have faced the threat of suspension or expulsion. Dozens have been doxed, harassed and effectively blacklisted by powerful Wall Street firms and hedge funds. Students at Harvard, the University of Chicago, UCLA and Princeton have had their degrees withheld because of ongoing disciplinary proceedings.

On Friday, May 24 — one week before graduation — four graduating seniors at the University of Chicago received an email from the associate dean of students, informing them that they had been reported for engaging in ​“disruptive conduct” during the protests. ​“You have been identified as an individual that may have been involved in the matter,” the email reads, without specifying what the specific charges were. The students will not receive their degrees until the cases have been resolved, a process that can take months. 

Since the initial encampment at Columbia went up on April 17, more than 3,000 students have been arrested across the country and hundreds have faced the threat of suspension or expulsion.

As news of the deferments became public, the university posted a short statement on its website outlining disciplinary procedures for disruptive conduct, which it described as ​“faculty-led.” The disciplinary committee is made up of 19 student and faculty members, including two chairs who typically make decisions about whether to withhold degrees. But according to UChicago philosophy professor Anton Ford, who has followed the protests and disciplinary proceedings closely, neither faculty chair was involved in — or even informed of — the university’s decision. Instead, echoing Indiana’s subversion of widely accepted standards within academia, the university created what it called an ​“ad hoc faculty chair” who then bypassed the committee to punish the students involved in the encampment. 

“Neither of the two faculty chairs of the university-wide disciplinary committee was consulted,” Ford said. ​“They were completely blindsided by this.”

In a written statement, the University of Chicago’s public affairs director said the school could not comment on individual cases, adding that the disciplinary committee ​“routinely has multiple faculty chairs.” But one committee member who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media said they were not familiar with this policy and had never before seen the appointment of an ad hoc chair. 

Harvard also denied degrees to 13 graduating seniors despite a faculty vote urging the administration to overturn the decision, which they called excessive and an unprecedented break with past practice. The Harvard Corporation, a 13-member board that wields enormous influence over the administration, rejected the faculty’s request. During commencement, as the university’s interim president began handing out degrees, more than 1,000 students and faculty walked out. 

Ford, who has openly criticized his university’s handling of the protests — UChicago’s administration cleared the encampment on its campus on May 7 — says the lack of transparency around the disciplinary proceedings is deeply troubling and an insult to faculty and students alike. It’s also a sign of what students can expect to encounter when they return to campus this fall: further restrictions on speech, a greater police presence on campus and the use of harsh, often-opaque disciplinary measures to silence or intimidate student activists.

Harvard also denied degrees to 13 graduating seniors despite a faculty vote urging the administration to overturn the decision, which they called excessive and an unprecedented break with past practice.

Even if a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is reached this summer — so far there’s little indication that the two sides are any closer to reaching an agreement — U.S. policy in the region remains largely unchanged. Students who have called on their universities to divest from doing business with Israel, which is the core demand of most protests, will have every reason to continue organizing and engaging in civil disobedience. Whether the tents go back up may be secondary. As one University of Chicago student told ABC News after campus police had been called in, ​“The encampment was just one manifestation of a broader movement and that movement is not going away.”

At Indiana University, the tents are still up in Dunn Meadow. In early June, the prosecutor’s office decided to drop criminal trespassing charges against the protesters, while calling the school’s response ​“constitutionally dubious.” When students and faculty return in the fall, McDonald said, it’s possible the encampment will be there to greet them.