Do college protests pay off? Wins are varied and sometimes lasting, experts say

The pro-Palestinian protests that roiled college campuses in late April and early May have begun to abate in recent weeks. As summer break approached, school leaders at some schools struck deals with student protestors while others resorted to calling on law enforcement to forcibly remove activists from campus.

The tumult will likely taper off over the summer, according to experts, but could return again in the fall as the concessions made by some colleges come into sharper view.

As the term wrapped up at Harvard University, top officials reached an agreement with demonstrators Tuesday to take down a weekslong pro-Palestinian encampment. As part of that pact, the university said it would retract student suspensions and broach the topic of divesting from companies affiliated with Israel, according to a social media post by Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine, a student group.

Administrators at the University of California, Berkeley, also negotiated an end to the school’s encampment this week. Though Berkeley’s chancellor passed the buck on whether divestment was feasible, she promised to review all discrimination complaints associated with study abroad programs and agreed to examine the investment strategy of the school's foundation.

A worker cleans up Dickenson Plaza at the UCLA campus in the aftermath of student demonstrations in May.
A worker cleans up Dickenson Plaza at the UCLA campus in the aftermath of student demonstrations in May.

Anti-war sentiment lingered at many graduation ceremonies this month, including in North Carolina, where a group of students walked out of actor Jerry Seinfeld’s commencement speech at Duke University on Sunday. The comedian, who is Jewish, has been vocal about his support for Israel since the war broke out following Hamas' attacks on Israel last fall.

Jerry Seinfeld commencement speech: Students walk out after comedian's support of Israel

How the social movement plays out on campuses over the rest of the year will depend on how the conflict unfolds overseas and whether students can maintain their recent momentum, experts said.

Renewed interest in ‘socially responsible investing’

Whether or not the protests return or reach another fever pitch, some remnants of the unrest could become more permanent fixtures of campus culture, according to Todd Ely, an associate professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado, Denver.

Though the divestment movement has a long history on college campuses, Ely said there seems to be a renewed interest in the concept of “socially responsible investing,” also known as ethical investing. As colleges’ endowment portfolios have grown in size and complexity in the last few decades, the topic has become a familiar part of student activism. In recent years, a push for socially responsible investing has driven protests at schools that students said were profiting from fossil fuels or the gun industry.

Divestment, explained: Pro-Palestinian protesters urge universities to divest from Israel. What does that mean?

Scrutiny of investment strategies in higher education reached new heights this year, amid student demands that schools sever ties with weapons manufacturers and companies affiliated with the Israeli government. But university endowments, especially the largest ones, are tough to track. They are often managed by hedge funds, which can have stakes in many different types of companies. By nature, their portfolios are kept mostly in the dark.

Concessions made at schools such as Brown University may be notable landmarks. Administrators at the Rhode Island campus agreed last month to set up more formal meetings with students to explore divestment options. Whether they’ll result in any substantial policy changes, however, is an open question, Ely said.

Still, the conversation is starting from a new place, he said.

“Next year’s going to be different,” Ely said. “Universities are going to have to come to terms with whether our assets are purely to be deployed for maximizing economic return."

If the next phase of negotiations at schools breaks down over the upcoming school year, the discord could prompt another spurt of unrest.

Will congressional hearings stay in the spotlight?

A central catalyst for the latest wave of campus activism was a congressional hearing in mid-April on campus antisemitism. As Columbia University’s president was peppered with questions on Capitol Hill, pro-Palestinian student protestors put up tents, occupying the campus in New York City and setting the stage for mass arrests that gripped the nation. The hearing, organized by House Republicans, came after widely panned testimony from the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania in December that eventually spurred their resignations.

Minouche Shafik testifies: Columbia University president fends off questions that took down her Ivy League peers

As students and faculty disperse for summer break, Republicans aren't letting up.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., and other lawmakers called yet another hearing on campus antisemitism for next week, featuring testimony from several additional college presidents. It's possible this round of grilling won't garner as much attention, said Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

“It could be a tipping point in terms of the political currency that politicians are getting from this,” he said.

Could concessions actually prompt more protests?

Summer break will likely put a damper on the momentum of campus protests, according to Lisa Mueller, an associate political science professor at Macalester College and the author of the upcoming book “The New Science of Social Change: A Modern Handbook for Activists.”

“It’s a lot more difficult to mobilize a mass movement when everyone has dispersed to their hometowns,” she said.

Yet things could change as students return in the fall and, on some campuses, begin deeper conversations with administrators about divestment. Some recent research even suggests that when decision-makers give in to protestors’ demands, those concessions can drive more demonstrations, not less. Mueller cautioned that those findings are tough to generalize and based on data from authoritarian regimes, not democracies.

But if the last month felt like a protest earthquake, she said, colleges could still be in for some aftershocks.

“This might actually show activists that protests pay off, and that maybe they should do more of them,” she said.

Zachary Schermele covers education and breaking news for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Do college protests pay off? Wins varied and lasting, experts say.