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Student protesters following the Fossil Free Penn protest at Penn's Homecoming game on Oct. 22.

Credit: Jesse Zhang

In 1985, as protests against the apartheid regime in South Africa gathered steam across the world, universities like Cornell, where I was a graduate student, saw renewed attempts by students and faculty to get the administration and the trustees to divest from companies doing business there. As part of our campaign, I joined a large group of students who occupied Day Hall, the building that housed the central administration.

Many more students and faculty were gathered outside, and we pledged to remain in the building till the president and the board of trustees met with our leaders and allowed us to plead our case. It was a heady moment — we were doing the right thing, and, as it turned out, were on the right side of history! My euphoria did not last long, as two faculty members, strong supporters of divestment, swooped into the building and walked me out. I was a foreign student, they said, and they had heard that agencies of the federal government (they might have used more impolitic terms!) were going to blunt these protests by targeting vulnerable students — those on a student visa, for instance.

I joined in the sloganeering outside and waited for the police. They arrived, and after a university spokesman demanded that the students leave (they cordially refused), the police moved in to eject the students. I watched as individual students insisted that (i) they would not walk out if escorted by a policeman wearing a weapon, (ii) women students should be removed by women officers, and (iii) they would not walk out at all and needed to be carried out. (I do not remember anyone calling these students “snowflakes” then, but that moment was different from ours.)

To my great surprise, this is exactly what happened, as the harried officers there cleared the corridors of students, one by one, respecting their choices. I had not expected such a benign police response, but I realized then that the university administration was sending the protestors a message: they were to be cleared, to be taken to the police station and their information recorded before they were released, but their right to nonviolent protest was respected. The police would be equally nonviolent, or at least as nonviolent as possible, during the process of arrest.

I do not want to sugar-coat all that happened, as the administration did use backhoes to destroy the shantytown erected by the protestors in the main quad. Students were arrested there, too, but the campus judicial system withdrew charges later. This memory recurs as I think about the courageous and principled Penn student members of Fossil Free Penn who camped out for weeks on Locust Walk (they have now taken down their tents) and interrupted the Penn-Yale Homecoming football game to demand that our university divest from all fossil fuel-related investments.

These students are activists addressing the most pressing planetary issue of our time, which is climate change (we should really be calling it 'climate catastrophe'). Our administrators, and members of our board of trustees, should recognize that these students are showing us the way. They are leaders — ethical, committed, and willing to risk punishment — acting to further the public good. And our administrators should match their leadership and commitment. But Penn, which styles itself a model of excellence in all things, now brings up the pathetic rear, lagging far behind Harvard and other universities that have pledged to divest from fossil fuel investments.

Worse, various institutional entities, particularly the office of the Vice Provost for University Life, have made it their mission to launch repeated investigations of these students, and to do so in ways that have heightened the stress that the protestors deal with as they keep up with their demanding academic workload. Nor have officials of this office or others done anything to suggest that they recognize that nonviolent protest, even when disruptive of football games or campus rituals, is crucial to the functioning of democracy, and certainly of universities as bastions of free speech.

Their free speech “observers” on the football field should have been mindful and caring in their response to student protest, and to monitor any attempts to intimidate these students. But no such thing occurred — the game's attendees instead functioned as partisans of the university administration rather than neutral observers who are meant to ensure that free speech rights are protected, even as students are warned and then arrested (if necessary). This punitive attitude can be rectified if our senior administration makes clear that they recognize and value ethical and nonviolent protest, but we seem sorely to lack that leadership.

Back to Cornell: The trustees convened a panel to meet the anti-apartheid protestors. I remember that they sat patiently for several hours listening to prepared speeches. I spoke, too, about Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and their mobilization of common people to address the ravages of empire and of racism. I cannot claim that our speeches caused shifts in university policy, but that meeting demonstrated to me one way in which leaders of universities, makers of policy, can attend to those in our community who march ahead of us and remind us of our urgent political and ethical obligations.

SUVIR KAUL is A. M. Rosenthal Professor of English and the past President of the American Association of University Professors chapter at Penn. His email is