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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Campus strife

May 24, 2024

Even seemingly good solutions don't seem to satisfy these days. At Northwestern University what seemed like a good compromise was followed by a lawsuit. Nostalgic comparisons to the '60s and '70s don't really apply.

Milt Policzer

By Milt Policzer

Courthouse News columnist; racehorse owner and breeder; one of those guys who always got picked last.

Sometimes you just can’t win.

I thought that maybe my alma mater, Northwestern University, had gotten it right when it negotiated with protesters on campus and everyone seemed sort of happy.

The university president, Michael Schill, even had a sort of self-congratulatory statement published in the Chicago Tribune op-ed section explaining how he and faculty members met with protesters and, while turning down demands for divestment from Israel and an end to an Israeli academic program, they committed to doing more for Muslim students.

The on-campus tents came down but peaceful protest was allowed and continued.


If you don’t know, can you guess what happened next?

Yep — a 140-page proposed class action with a John Doe plaintiff was filed last week in Chicago against the school that claims there has been and continues to be rampant antisemitism on campus and Jewish students are not being protected.

The school, the suit said, “rewarded the mob” and “antisemitic rhetoric continues to be prolific … . Put simply, Northwestern has one set of facially content-neutral policies applied to most protected classes, and another unwritten set to Jews.”

Is this true?

I’m not there so I don’t know. I do know that some people are excessively paranoid — and others have a reason to be scared. It can be hard to tell which is which.

I should note here that Schill, the school president and a law professor, is Jewish, and he made a point of noting that in his statement. Make of that what you will (and I know you will).

There are a lot of opinions about college demonstrations and how to handle them. I’m not going to add to them — but I’m not sure comparing the protests of the late '60s and early '70s to what’s happening now is all that useful or accurate.

I sort of know this because I was a student journalist covering politics in the late '60s and early '70s (yes, I’m that old).

I wasn’t attacked and I didn’t feel unsafe. I did get tear-gassed a couple of times but that was only because I was standing around taking notes a little too close to the action. I was also kind of indistinguishable from the demonstrators and none of the protests I covered turned violent. (Or maybe I was oblivious — a distinct possibility.)

Yes, there were the Kent State shootings and the Chicago Democratic Convention brutality, but the protesters weren’t the problem. The adults with guns and batons were the problem.

You’d think present-day adults would have learned from this, but apparently many of them haven’t.

There were, of course, lots of students who disagreed with the anti-war kids but they didn’t harass anyone. Mostly they just went to class.

The big difference now is that some students are terrified of other students and some of the faculty have gotten into the action too. There may also (or may not) now be outsiders coming onto campuses to stir things up.

There weren’t as many political lawsuits back then either.

If you’re feeling stressed by all this, consider one of my most vivid memories of the Vietnam protest days.

I was covering what seemed like a huge demonstration in downtown Chicago when I needed a restroom break. So I walked across a street and into a department store.

I was stunned by what I saw: shopping.

Women spraying perfume, cash registers registering, clothes being tried on.

It was as if nothing unusual was going on outside. I might as well have crossed into another dimension or stepped through a looking glass.

Chaos — or maybe awareness — does not reign everywhere. At least not in a rich country not being bombed or starved.

Let’s hope our luck holds out.

Categories / Op-Ed

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