A few days after campus police used truncheons to break up a nonviolent protest at the University of California at Berkeley, I received an e-mail describing the use of excessive force in Sproul Plaza. I wound up both on my campus and for The Huffington Post. My administrative colleagues were concerned about whether I should be criticizing another university, and another administration. I suppose as a president I was supposed to have more in common with chancellors, presidents and their "reports" than I was supposed to have with professors and students. This is misdirected allegiance. We are all students and teachers. This has only become more evident with the inappropriate use of force at UC Davis and other venues.
After I published the post, I received many supportive comments and more than a few critical ones. Two strains of criticism seemed to me particularly important. The first emphasized the difficulties for the police officers, and it asked me about my apparent lack of concern for them. This struck home for me because I have worked closely with and depended on our campus public safety officers and (much more rarely) on the local police force. I have a great deal of respect for the work they do, and I am proud of Wesleyan’s Public Safety’s professionalism and concern for student and faculty welfare. After all, that’s why I was critical of the work of the forces of order on the UC campuses. The use of excessive force undermines the mission of the university and makes it harder for campus police to do their legitimate and very important jobs.
The second strain of criticism came from readers who thought I left the door open for using force when I wrote: "I can imagine (with dread) extreme situations in which force would be required to preserve campus safety and our ongoing operations. As students, staff and faculty make their voices heard, however, the university's responsibility is to protect their rights, even as it ensures that the educational mission of the school continues.” A parent and some students asked me if this meant that I would break up demonstrations with force akin to what we’ve seen on the West Coast. My point was actually to separate legitimate force to protect safety and operations from excessive force. Everybody agrees, I think, that violent criminals on campuses should be stopped before they inflict harm. What about peaceful but disruptive protest? I have tried to indicate that my administration might have to move or arrest protesters who intended to act in civil disobedience, but that we would do so while protecting their rights.
I have been on both sides of civil disobedience and know how difficult...