University Upheaval: Has Higher-Education Failed to Protect Students?

An officer apprehends a violent protestor on campus.

Universities have always had a reputation as places where curious minds with opposing viewpoints could coexist. These educational havens were intended to function not only as institutions of higher learning, but as safe harbors for the free exchange of ideas.

But something is changing. Modern campus culture is tense. Students are on edge. Administrators are afraid. The evening news leads with fresh, headlining stories about college protests gone wrong, or school presidents in hot water for unscrupulous behavior.

This new and uncertain tide points to a growing instability between one student's right to rally for any cause they see fit and another's reasonable expectation to study safely.

A Reputation at Risk

The right to self-expression is important, but not at the expense of safety. It’s a university’s charge to protect and promote an environment conducive to learning as well as one that exposes students to a variety of thoughts and opinions.

No student should feel unsafe to take a stance on issues that resonate with them. However, there’s a clear divide between free speech and aggression, and that line is getting blurrier with every passing month, particularly with regards to hate crimes.

Despite what traditional media has been selling as a growing culture of increased tolerance, hate crimes are at all-time high on college campuses. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Crime Data Explorer indicates that bias-based offenses at universities rose sharply from just 700 in 2018 to over 1,300 in 2022.

This sort of troubling data calls into question whether universities are doing enough to balance their tolerance for demonstrations with their responsibility to keep the country’s sacred halls of knowledge safe for everyone attending.

According to the latest opinion polls, it would seem the American public has its doubts. Gallup’s 2023 analysis concludes that the general population’s trust in Western higher education systems is plummeting. Only 36% of respondents say they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in universities, while 62% percent cite only “some” or “very little.”

Outside Influences

There’s never a shortage of causes to rile the masses, with the most prominent among them often rooted in social or geopolitical topics. But regardless of the source, much of what drives modern, cause-based aggression on campus has more to do with misinformation and instigation from external forces than anything else.

Propaganda and social engineering are effective tools to create chaos, and unaffiliated bad actors from outside the student body are adept at using bedlam to their benefit. Extremist groups and adversarial governments have a long, unflattering history of staging coups, instigating mass mob events, and co-opting principled social movements for nefarious ends.

Take Black Lives Matter (BLM), for example. This was an important, nationwide protest meant to draw attention to systemic oppression and the continued plight people of color face within the United States. But thanks to unaffiliated criminals operating under the guise of peaceful activists, businesses suffered nearly $2 billion-worth of property damages, detracting from BLM’s intended message and twisting the narrative.

The Current State of Campus Security

In June 2024, civil unrest abounds on college campuses, with most instances attributable to the ongoing war in Gaza. Regardless of the many, varying opinions on the issue, it’s an irrefutable fact that schools have failed to maintain safety and security for their students amid these fervent political rallies.

The following two case studies exemplify what happens when campus administrators fail to take security seriously -- a complacency that allows violence, bigotry, and vandalism to flourish.

Columbia University

New York’s Columbia University was the preeminent institution for mass protests, starting in mid-April. These and subsequent demonstrations spilled out into the surrounding city area and disrupted local attractions, like the Brooklyn Museum, which prompted involvement from the New York Police Department (NYPD).

Protestors also set up encampments on and around campus, despite spring semester’s end, allowing them a base of operations from which to engage in vandalism across the South Lawn and Hamilton Hall. Once again, NYPD was forced to assist the university and drive squatters from the grounds.

These and other, related incidents have resulted in over 100 arrests to date, and the increasingly dangerous campus environment ultimately led university officials to suspend in-person attendance and cancel the school’s May commencement ceremony.

A full timeline of events is available through the Columbia Spectator.

University of California, Los Angeles

Like Columbia, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) was also forced to contend with encampments on campus. But unlike Columbia, UCLA quickly became a hotbed for in-fighting, leading to a flare up between pro-Palestinian demonstrators and pro-Israel counterprotests.

Ultimately, police clad in riot gear were called to manage a situation that was quickly spiraling out of control. Unwilling to disperse, protestors attacked the police with fireworks, tear gas, and other improvised weaponry.

There’s also the issue of growing hostility between Jewish and non-Jewish student communities, with the former subjected to regular harassment and threats. This allowance for antisemitism came to a head during an April Board of Regents meeting, where protestors displayed a banner caricaturizing Jewish students and referring to them as the “New Nazis.”

A full timeline of events is available on the UCLA Alumni website.

It Boils Down to Assets

In terms of security, a university isn’t much different than any other organization; they’re entrusted with protecting their assets – people, property and finances – from threats. And with a growing climate of hostility on campuses, administrators must act to emplace guardrails that uphold freedom of speech and prevent it from transforming into something deleterious to their overarching educational mission.

Safeguarding Scholastics

Chameleon Associates supports free expression and condemns bigotry in all its forms. We believe all students are entitled to their views and should be allowed to espouse them without fear of retribution. We also believe the best way to safely uphold these freedoms is with good security training and thoughtful planning.

We welcome the opportunity to assist schools in protecting their student populations and invite interested administrators to contact us at for more detail on our portfolio of school security services.

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