Morning Edition

Expert: University of Minnesota agreement with protesters is ‘quite remarkable’

a protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of a crowd
Pro-Palestinian protestors participate in a rally at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis on May 2.
Tom Baker for MPR News

University of Minnesota administrators are expected to begin disclosing the school’s investments in publicly-traded companies based in or doing business with Israel on Tuesday.

The disclosure is a key part of the agreement administrators reached last week with student protesters who want the university to divest from companies connected to the Israeli military. Also part of that agreement: leniency for people arrested on campus during the protest encampment (this also was fulfilled when their trespassing charges were dropped) and facetime with the Board of Regents later this week, among other things.

How significant is this agreement and how does it fit into the larger national picture of student-led pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses? We asked Lisa Mueller. She’s an associate professor of political science at Macalester College in St. Paul and studies social movements.

She called the agreement “quite remarkable” and said the current student protests have a better shot at succeeding than other recent movements did, including Occupy Wall Street and the Women’s March.

“Even though social movements worldwide continue to rise in frequency, they are becoming less successful, and there are several reasons why that might be the case,” Mueller told Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer. “One that I’ve studied, in particular, is that many contemporary movements lack a cohesive message.”

Mueller said that’s not the case with the pro-Palestinian student protests.

To hear the full conversation, click play on the audio player above or read a transcript of it below. It has been edited for clarity.

The U is among the few universities that have struck agreements with protest leaders. How significant do you think that is?

Mueller: I think it’s quite remarkable in the context of the very different ways that other college and university leaders have responded to protests on their campuses — namely and most infamously at Columbia — because it suggests that administrators are watching the blowback elsewhere and trying to avoid a similar PR nightmare.

We’ve invited Interim President Jeff Ettinger on the show several times. He’s declined. What’s the balancing act university leaders like President Ettinger are engaging in right now?

It is very delicate, I will say that, based on the social science we have, the optics do matter a lot. Because when when protesters face repression, regardless of whether the college administrators view their application of campus policies as repression, this can blow back against the administration. Repression of protesters — even just perceived repression — tends to raise sympathy with the protesters. And so that’s why I think that over time, as we’re seeing blowback on other campuses, administrators are feeling the pressure to respond differently.

The National Students for Justice in Palestine, the umbrella organization coordinating some of the protests across the country, says there are many parallels between the current movement and the opposition to the war in Vietnam back in the ‘60s. Are there?

Of course there are parallels. There are also differences. I mean, the conspicuous parallel is that students in virtually every generation are going to be rising up in response to major local and global triggers. And that’s no surprise, because students have a comparative advantage in mobilizing movements: They live and study together, and that is a really handy mechanism for coordinating. If you don’t show up to a protest that your classmates organize, it’s likely that someone’s going to notice. And so this is not the first and it’s not the last time we’ll see people rise up.

A difference might be the public reaction. I mean, we don’t have a tremendous volume of public opinion data yet on the ongoing protests, but based on data around, say, the Kent State massacre during the Vietnam era, the public was highly critical of the activists and it was only over the subsequent decades that public opinion turned more favorable toward them in hindsight.

But today, we might see more public support if the campus protesters are able to use social media, in particular, to control the narrative more around what they’re doing, especially by highlighting any nonviolent actions that they take.

You study what makes social movements succeed. How do you see this national movement playing out?

As I was just alluding to, one of the keys to successful movements is to maintain a nonviolent set of tactics. According to many, many studies, violence initiated by activists almost always backfires. And so this is why I think in a social media era, which is another thing that distinguishes the current protests from those of past generations, it’s really vital for activists to not just refrain from violence, but also to remind observers that they are refraining from violence. And that’s important because some of these campus protests have turned violent, but not always at the hands of protesters. So at UCLA, for example, it seems like counter protesters were really instigating some of the clashes.

As a researcher, what will you be looking for? What do you think the questions should be when you look at this particular social movement?

Even though social movements worldwide continue to rise in frequency, they are becoming less successful — and there’s some really sobering data on this — and there are several reasons why that might be the case. But one that I’ve studied, in particular, is that many contemporary movements lack a cohesive message. And so some famous examples of that would be, like, Occupy Wall Street, where it was difficult at times to know what exactly the activists were demanding. The Women’s March I studied quite closely. And that movement really styled itself as intersectional, embraced a hodgepodge of progressive issues ranging from the environment to abortion, access to women’s rights to opposing Trump. And again, that can lead to fissures within the movement.

One thing I noticed about the ongoing campus protests is that their demands are relatively cohesive, which does work in their favor. So its demand, like what we heard at the U around divestment, that is loud and clear. At other campuses we’ve heard protesters all echoing “cease-fire now.” And so I do see that as one aspect of these movements that plays to the activist benefit.