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What are college students potentially risking when they engage in protests?


Police have arrested many students in recent days, and universities have also suspended or expelled many students for their protest tactics. So what happens to those students later, after the national attention moves on? Robert Kelchen is a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He spoke with Leila Fadel.

ROBERT KELCHEN: There can be a range of different consequences running from simply not getting as good of a grade in a class because you spent less time studying all the way up to expulsion.


What kind of rights do students have in these situations if they face these academic consequences?

KELCHEN: It varies across individual colleges. In general, private colleges have more authority over students than public colleges. And another piece worth considering is the larger the demonstration, the more students who are affected, the harder it is for the college to put tough sanctions on all the students just because it's a pretty substantial share of their student body.

FADEL: What about students who are not American, are here on a visa?

KELCHEN: That gets much riskier for two reasons. One is, from an academic progress side, if they are failing classes, that can put them at risk of losing any funding that they have, potentially having to leave the country. Or there can be issues if individuals are charged with a crime while they're here as international students.

FADEL: Why call outside law enforcement on peaceful protesters? Why would an administration do that?

KELCHEN: The administration at Columbia and a number of other institutions is just under an incredible amount of political pressure to end the protests. Columbia's president testified before Congress recently and there are concerns about, will this repel donors? And for an Ivy League institution, that's a big piece to think about. And the responses often are pretty aggressive because institutions don't want things to spiral out of control.

FADEL: Does this approach backfire when the point is to try to quell it?

KELCHEN: It can absolutely backfire. If students and the community is committed to the protest, they may not care if their academic future is at risk. You could make a pretty strong argument that colleges could have just let this all play out, wait for the end of the semester, which is getting very close at this point, and hope that students and protesters disperse for the summer. But there's also the optics question of, when alumni and donors are coming to campus for graduation, do they want to see a protest on campus? Or would they rather have it look like business as usual, even when it hasn't been business as usual for a long time?

FADEL: If you were in this position - if you're heading a campus, you have a small protest on campus, it's getting national attention - what would you do?

KELCHEN: A college president can't solve war in the Middle East, but at least having some sense of dialogue may be useful. But also, if you have donors or legislators who are completely opposed to that strategy, you're running the risk of losing your job. And one thing that I feel pretty confident out of all this is it's going to be really hard to recruit high-quality college presidents when they're stuck in situations where there is no easy solution.

FADEL: Robert Kelchen is a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the department head of the department of educational leadership and policy studies. Thank you so much for your time.

KELCHEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM JARMEY'S "TWILIGHT ZONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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