Image by John Kazior

The Fortress University | Protesting and Policing on Campus

Erik Baker

On Monday, April 29, hours after students established the Popular University for Gaza on the lawn of the University of Chicago, President Paul Alivisatos sent a campus-wide email expressing his dismay. Alivisatos’s suggestion that the encampment was somehow violent because of the “etymological connections of the word to military origins” drew widespread scorn. But after that tendentious charge came a more revealing — and more ominous — complaint. “Disruption becomes greater the longer the encampment persists,” Alivisatos warned. “With a 24-hour presence, day after day, we must for example divert police resources away from public safety for our campus and our community.”

This one remark compresses decades of history into a crystalline lens on the self-conception of powerful universities today. Like many of its peers, UChicago imagines itself as an institution that has been, since long before the first Palestinian solidarity tent went up, under siege. The university is a “community” whose safety is in jeopardy, and it must be defended by armed police officers. The crime of the encampment is to draw this force inward, when it must be ceaselessly projected outward, securing the border between UChicago and its perilous environs.

It’s not a secret that the school’s leadership feels this way. The university has been working to reinforce the frontier between the campus and the poor black communities of Chicago’s South Side since at least the mid-twentieth century. Under the auspices of “urban renewal” and crime reduction, an economic development organization created by the university knocked down 638 buildings in the late 1950s, displacing roughly four thousand families from the surrounding Hyde Park neighborhood. In the 1970s, as the UChicago Police Department (UCPD) swelled into a large and aggressive force, a student quipped to The Chicago Maroon that the university needed to “build a wall around Hyde Park.” Today, the area around the University of Chicago is more conspicuously pervaded by armed security forces than almost any place I have ever been. When I lived there a decade ago, it was possible to encounter, in the span of a few blocks, officers of the UCPD, the Chicago Police Department, and even the Secret Service. (The latter were around, I assume, to guard the residence of then-President Barack Obama.) 

The university likes to frame this “saturation policing,” a term used by scholars to refer to the practice of flooding targeted neighborhoods with disproportionate force, as an act of beneficence to the community. The UCPD claims it has “jurisdiction to assist the Chicago Police Department with the needs of the communities surrounding the University” in order to address “requests from community leaders for the University to play a role in public safety and other issues of concern to residents.” But it is clear that the main purpose of these suffocating patrols is wall-building rather than collective safety. When a friend forwarded me Alivisatos’s message, I thought of a young woman named Kaylyn Pryor, who graduated from my high school the year after I did. She was shot in 2015 about five miles from the University of Chicago Medical Center, in the nearby South Side neighborhood of Englewood. At that time, UCMC was without an adult trauma center, in a symbol of the university’s desire to sequester itself from the elevated violent crime rates in some surrounding areas. Kaylyn had to be transported to an emergency room in suburban Oak Lawn instead. She didn’t make it; studies have found that Chicagoans shot more than five miles away from a trauma center have a significantly greater chance of dying. The nearly endless list of cases like Kaylyn’s galvanized an activist campaign to create a new trauma center, which finally opened in 2018.

The University of Chicago, like other urban research universities today, is a fortress, and fortresses do not respond kindly to invasion. On May 7, Alivisatos decided he’d had enough. Around 5 a.m., UChicago police in riot gear began dismantling the encampment and forcibly removing students from the quad. The school’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter captured video of police shoving one protester onto the pavement. Other students thronged to the barrier around the encampment, chanting, “UChicago hates its students.” A few hours later, Alivisatos released a victory message to the university community whose safety he purported to be defending. “The risks were increasing too rapidly for the status quo to hold,” he explained. 

According to students on the ground, UChicago police began to distribute leaflets to protesters about an hour and a half after the raid began, demanding they vacate the quad on penalty of suspension, eviction, and bans from campus. The order of operations here was bizarre. Presumably once someone was ripped from their sleeping bag by a riot cop, they would have already absorbed the message that they were being encouraged to leave. When such notices are distributed, it typically happens before raids, in order to give police legal grounds to make arrests for criminal trespassing, which may have been the original plan at UChicago. But if the students are correct that the flyers were passed out even after they no longer had any legal value, it would suggest that UCPD viewed the distribution as an end in itself, part of the whole pageantry of the operation. You put on your body armor, load up your military-caliber firearms, prepare for battle against the undesirable population in need of removal — and print leaflets warning everyone to hit the road. That’s just how it’s done. It’s how it was done at Dartmouth and the University of New Mexico, both of which distributed warning notices shortly before arrests commenced. The University of Pennsylvania waited nearly two weeks after circulating threatening flyers to send police in riot gear to clear its encampment. Columbia suspended students who refused to heed ultimatum leaflets in late April. There were other theatrics, too: snipers (Indiana University), a ladder-equipped armored vehicle (Columbia), surveillance drones (Columbia again), security checkpoints (Harvard, where I teach). Whole student populations punished in retaliation for a minority’s actions, as when the City College of New York shut down its food pantry in response to the encampment there, or when the University of Minnesota allegedly ordered the water supply to its student union building shut off overnight after protests began. It’s almost as if, in trying to squash students’ outrage at the Israel Defense Forces, universities have simultaneously adopted a twisted pastiche of its tactics.


Activists have long decried the prevalence of exchange programs that send American police officers to Israel for instruction. The practice began in the aftermath of 9/11, and some university cops have even gotten in on the action. MIT police chief John DiFava, whose department arrested ten students in an encampment raid on May 10, was part of a delegation of fourteen Massachusetts law enforcement officials who traveled to Israel in 2016 for “counter-terrorism” training, at the invitation of the Anti-Defamation League. In an interview with The Times of Israel, DiFava explained that his school could be at risk because it had many international students who hailed “from countries that aren’t necessarily friends of the United States per se.” Haunted by the death of one of his officers during the manhunt that followed the Boston Marathon bombing, DiFava warned, “If they — whoever they are — intended to make a higher education institution a target, we would be at the top of the list.” It is not hard to imagine DiFava looking out on a quad filled with keffiyehs and Palestinian flags and concluding with alarm that “they” had at last decided to make their move. 

As part of a wide range of philanthropic initiatives that aim to spread pro-Israel sentiment among American youths, some donors have worked to bring Israeli counterinsurgency expertise directly to college campuses. The Israel Institute, an American nonprofit founded in 2012 by former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Itamar Rabinovich, has partnered with over a hundred American colleges and universities. The Institute sponsors visiting faculty who offer courses on combating terrorism and strengthening national security, among a wide range of other topics concerning modern Israel. One class entitled “Security, Counter Terrorism, and Resilience: The Israeli Case,” taught at UChicago by former IDF Brigadier General Meir Elran, drew scrutiny from a group of pro-Palestine student activists a few years ago. They ultimately produced a report that highlighted, among other discoveries, a model Israel Institute syllabus that promised to explain “what strategies are available in the fight against terrorism.” For the final project, students would role-play as owners of a for-profit counterterrorism consultancy; their task was to prepare for a meeting with Israeli security officials following a suicide bombing praised by “Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah, and ISIS.” (One wonders why Hamas demurred.)

In addition to training Americans in Israeli military strategy, American universities also perform research that both indirectly and directly aids Israel’s war machine. Over the last decade, the Pentagon has awarded the applied physics laboratory at Johns Hopkins a gobsmacking twelve billion dollars, almost twice what the entire university has earned in tuition and fees in the same time period. In March 2021, a JHU press release bragged about the laboratory’s work on a project backed by the Department of Defense that would enable “swarms” of drones to coordinate with one another; two months later, the IDF deployed a drone swarm in Gaza. At MIT, similar drone research is directly funded by the Israeli Ministry of Defense. The university has received millions of dollars from the Israeli military in support of projects that aim, among other things, to develop algorithms that help drones better pursue escaping targets; to improve underwater surveillance technology; and to refine something called an “advanced quantum cascade laser,” used for aircraft protection. 

And, of course, as students have emphasized, the endowment investments of American universities supply capital to companies that work with the Israeli military. At universities with large endowments, annual payouts from these funds account for a substantial portion of operating budgets. For a long time schools managed their money conservatively, investing primarily in public markets. When student activists mobilized for divestment from South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1970s and 1980s, it was still relatively straightforward to figure out which companies universities invested in and to demand they sell their stock in the offenders. It’s not so simple anymore. Although students have called for Columbia, for instance, to sell its shares in corporations like Alphabet and Amazon that contract with the IDF, such direct public holdings represent a small fraction of the university’s endowment investments. The same is true for most rich universities. Especially in the last decade or so, these institutions have imbibed the American capitalist class’s wider belief that hedge funds and private equity firms will improve returns without a problematic degree of increased risk. As the Columbia historian Adam Tooze has recently observed, their faith has not always been rewarded, with some nontraditionally invested endowments underperforming basic index funds. This is especially true once payments to money managers are taken into account. 

In response to the shift away from public stock ownership, encampment activists have called for “disclosure” as well as divestment, urging universities to publicize their investments in firms with ties to the Israeli occupation. Nontraditional asset investing, however, makes this dual task difficult. The precise allocation of a given institution’s endowment capital can fluctuate significantly on a day-to-day basis; hedge funds are not usually required to give clients up-to-the-minute information on their trades. At the same time, the investments that private equity firms make are often subject to relatively long “lock-up periods,” during which funds cannot be withdrawn. In short, even if universities wanted to fully divest from the Israeli occupation, their ability to do so at a moment’s notice would be constrained. 

But reliance on nontraditional asset investing does not absolve universities of complicity. Private equity firms have made enormous inroads into the global defense industry in recent decades; they participated in 47 percent of the mergers and acquisitions in the aerospace, defense, and government sector in 2022. (A decade ago, that figure was under twenty percent.) Private equity analysts see this sector as a safe bet, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Israeli companies receive more money from global private equity firms than their counterparts in any other country in the Middle East do (in part because tech startups have been central to the development of the modern Israeli economy). 

There is little information available about precisely which private firms university endowments invest in, but the details we do have paint a suggestive picture. The website of the largest Israeli private equity firm, FIMI Opportunity Funds, which has holdings in IDF contractors, lists “college and university endowments” among its investors. The University of Washington, which is required by state law to disclose its endowment investments in private firms, partners with Greenbriar Equity Group, which owns Arotech Corporation, a defense contractor with links to the IDF. Farallon Capital, which handles funds from the University of Michigan, Yale, and likely other universities, owns 3.4 million shares of Howmet Aerospace, a company that manufactures key parts in the F-35 jets used by the Israeli air force. Private equity’s move to gobble up defense contractors, in turn, creates even more transparency challenges, according to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which warns that after a private equity acquisition, “an arms company’s sales could be hidden from public scrutiny indefinitely.” In other words, the firms in which universities now invest heavily are not only acquiring companies that sell arms to Israel; they are also making it harder to identify which companies sell arms to Israel in the first place. Universities’ endowments, like their campuses, are encircled by protective barriers.


The direct material connections between the Israeli occupation and American higher education only explain so much about the behavior of college and university administrators this spring. Another clue, just as striking and perhaps ultimately more instructive, is the fact that many of the most egregious crackdowns took place at wealthy schools like UChicago that have been in long-running and occasionally violent conflict with the working-class communities of color that border them. Consider Washington University in St. Louis, located in what historian Walter Johnson calls “the broken heart of America.” WashU’s main campus is adjacent to the western terminus of the city’s infamous “Delmar Divide,” the line running along the boulevard that separates the city’s historically poor and black neighborhoods from its historically white and comparatively affluent neighborhoods. As ProPublica reported in 2022, residents of richer areas have increasingly augmented the efforts of one of the nation’s most legendarily racist and violent police forces with the help of private security companies. The largest of these outfits was founded by a beat cop who was policing the area around WashU’s medical campus when he got the idea to start a private firm; a WashU official reportedly encouraged the plan. In April, St. Louis County police arrested a hundred pro-Palestine demonstrators on WashU’s campus, allegedly breaking the ribs of a professor from a different nearby university. 

This spring, police also acted aggressively against protesters at other “UniverCities,” to use historian Davarian Baldwin’s moniker for elite urban institutions that wield enormous power over their surrounding communities and use their nonprofit tax exemptions to hoard wealth. Take the University of Southern California, which has spent decades grabbing up land in south central Los Angeles. Before the spread of the encampment movement, the university had already been in the headlines for barring its pro-Palestine Muslim valedictorian from speaking at commencement; after the tents went up in late April, administrators brought in the LAPD to arrest 93 peaceful protesters. As student activists documented in the aftermath of the George Floyd uprising, USC’s campus police force has a pattern of hiring LAPD officers with particularly nasty allegations of racial discrimination and excessive use of force.

And then there was Columbia, which has been trying to wall itself off from Harlem with real estate acquisition and hyper-policing since the early twentieth century. “The possibility of still further spread” of black migration to the neighborhood, one internal university report from 1926 suggested, was “an increasing reason why we should control all of the property opposite the University holdings on 116th street and on Amsterdam Avenue.” Today, it essentially does. Beginning in the 1940s, Columbia ramped up its efforts to “protect ourselves against invasion from the north,” as outgoing President Nicholas Murray Butler wrote to trustees in 1945. Over the next several decades, the university buttressed its domain by purchasing over a hundred strategically located buildings and evicting thousands of predominantly black and Latino tenants. The university also pushed for two massive “urban renewal” public housing developments on the northern border of Morningside Heights. These were completed by the late 1950s and functioned as a barrier against southern encroachment from Harlem. In 1968, Columbia began construction of what activists saw as a de facto segregated gym in Morningside Park, which helped spark the famous protests at the school that year: students challenged not only Columbia’s complicity in the Vietnam War, but also the university’s aggressive and exploitative presence in the city. When demonstrators marched to occupy Hamilton Hall on April 23, 1968, in fact, they were coming from the gym’s construction site, where they had earlier clashed with NYPD officers while attempting to tear down security fencing. 

Universities began to develop and deploy police departments with increasing zeal in the 1960s and 1970s in an effort to control both their unruly neighbors and the students who sought to stand in solidarity with them. And like law enforcement agencies nationwide, they discovered that arrests, threats of incarceration, and physical assault were effective in neutralizing anti-war and anti-racist uprisings. No wonder that they still think they can put down protest movements by roughing people up. And it is far from clear that this spring’s events, when all is said and done, will prove them wrong. The schools that chose to negotiate an end to their encampments, in most cases offering nothing more than vague commitments to “discuss” their endowment investing philosophies or to hold nonbinding referendums on divestment, may look savvier than those that took a skull-cracking approach. But only a few encampments cleared by police have been rebuilt. There were almost none still standing when commencement season began to kick into gear, although many student activists found ways to register their dissent at graduation ceremonies. Protesters at UChicago’s convocation reported that the UCPD attacked them with pepper spray. Apparently, administrators were pleased with what violence had accomplished for them so far.

Territorial dispossession, too, proceeds apace at “UniverCities” in the U.S., with the help of federal and state governments. A legislative initiative enacted under Trump allowed governors to designate certain economically disadvantaged census tracts as “Qualified Opportunity Zones,” creating new tax incentives for capital investment. As a laudatory report by the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute noted, cheerleading the initiative, “nearly every governor designated Opportunity Zones near universities and research institutions, creating the potential for commercializing research, supporting technology transfer, incubating student startups, and expanding student housing.” Poor communities turned into Opportunity Zones, in other words, are getting “revitalized” through de facto annexation by research universities. The University of Chicago is now almost completely encircled by Opportunity Zones. Five years ago, Purdue University constructed a massive development in an Opportunity Zone designed to house private businesses that commercialize the fruits of the school’s STEM research. Delivering a preliminary verdict on the federal program overall, the Urban Institute, a liberal think tank, judged in 2020 that “the incentive as a whole is not living up to its economic and community development goals.” Like previous urban redevelopment schemes exploited by universities, Opportunity Zones “are providing the biggest benefits to projects with the highest returns, which are rarely aligned with equitable development.”


For the better part of the last year, I’ve had more conversations than I can remember that begin with some version of the question, “Why are they doing this?” At first, “they” referred to Israel’s leaders. Why, in the wake of October 7, would they launch a genocidal response that could only end up canceling out whatever sympathy they gained initially in the West and fueling the global movement for justice in Palestine? More recently, “they” have been those university leaders whose heavy-handed response to Palestine solidarity encampments invited opprobrium from students and faculty, including some without strong prior convictions on the war. Weren’t administrators obviously repeating the mistakes of their Vietnam-era predecessors? Maybe these parallel questions have parallel answers, all the rhyming irrationality arising from deeper isomorphic pathologies. Maybe fortresses, wherever they are, come to violence like an addiction: at first you do it because you get something from it, and then you do it because you depend on it.

Even the processes of fortification have disturbing resonances. Israel sometimes styles itself like an American UniverCity — the country’s boosters often call it “Startup Nation,” an oasis of innovation. And like a UniverCity, it seeks to stabilize its frontier in a standard sequence: displacing original residents, constructing its own buildings and infrastructure, and ultimately attracting capital to the area. Israel categorizes most of its settlements in the West Bank, along with over thirty “industrial zones” designed explicitly to encourage corporations to locate large-scale factory complexes in or near the settlements, as “National Priority Areas,” giving settlers and settler businesses access to preferential tax rates, discounted land, subsidies for development costs, and other perks. In May, Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled plans, accompanied by cartoonishly utopian and presumably A.I.-generated visuals, to convert a demolished postwar Gaza into a futuristic “free trade zone” dominated by the kind of high-tech industry Israel prides itself on. Economic development, here, is an especially violent form of wall-building, replacing undesirable and unruly surrounding populations with eager and hyper-modern business partners.

And like American universities, Israel has brought its war home. The intensification of Israeli brutality in occupied Palestine since the failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 has also tracked the state’s increasingly tyrannical treatment of its own citizens. Last year, activists demonstrated against the Netanyahu regime’s anti-democratic judicial reforms, which sought to weaken the power of the country’s Supreme Court and pack the bench with sympathetic judges; the police in Tel Aviv responded with stun grenades and water cannons. Since October 7, “the police have taken on new powers to immediately repress protests,” the Haifa-based human rights attorney Maysana Mourani told the magazine +972 in January. According to her, the police have justified these crackdowns “because of their supposed ‘lack of manpower’” — a striking echo of Paul Alivisatos’s excuse for breaking up the UChicago encampment. In the fortress mindset, security forces are always spread too thin, inadequate to the overwhelming danger they confront, which means they cannot reasonably be expected to act patiently toward protesters wasting their time and diverting their attention. Reports of escalation are especially disturbing given the already draconian baseline for Israeli authorities’ treatment of their opposition. “The right to protest is not the right to anarchy,” Netanyahu tweeted as last spring’s demonstrations raged. A group of Harvard faculty members was a bit less pithy in an open letter urging the university to dismantle its encampment in May: “The right to protest does not imply the right to impose unlimited costs on the University.”

Leaders at major American universities would never think of themselves as partners in an authoritarian global network that joins Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Narendra Modi’s India. Their ideological orientation is, overall, outspokenly liberal. But whether they like it or not, they have found themselves acting on occasion like ethnostate autocrats, clamping down on dissent while striving to eliminate “security threats” from dispossessed racialized communities over whom they exert significant power but to whom they are not in any way accountable. This freedom from accountability, it turns out, has been won at the cost of new dependencies: on the frequently reactionary donors who supply the capital for expansion; on the increasingly militarized police forces that protect their property and constrain opposing voices; on the ideology of unapologetic rapaciousness that has enabled universities to transform into investment banks with small teaching apparatuses attached.

They are doing it, ultimately, because they have to, because “no justice, no peace” is not just a chant but an iron law of social reality; in eschewing justice in favor of conquest and exploitation, they have bound themselves to rule indefinitely through violence. The security that powerful institutions obtain is always transient, in constant need of renewal. New enemies will arise, both real and imagined, combatants that demand confrontation and subjugation. Eventually you will only feel safe in the moment of threat-crushing — a disposition to coercion that ensures, in turn, that there will always be new foes to subdue. Walls can hide you, but they can’t hide themselves. In defining everyone outside as a menace, they also remind those outsiders where to direct their anger. To achieve separation from the rest of the world is to condemn yourself only ever to act on it with force, and to be acted on with force in turn. “It seemed to K. as if at last … nobody could dare to touch him or drive him away, or even speak to him,” Franz Kafka writes in The Castle, describing his protagonist in a moment of triumphal isolation. “But — this conviction was at least equally strong — as if at the same time there was nothing more senseless, nothing more hopeless, than this freedom, this waiting, this inviolability.”

Erik Baker is a lecturer on the history of science at Harvard University and an associate editor at The Drift. His first book, Make Your Own Job: How the Entrepreneurial Work Ethic Exhausted America, will be published in January by Harvard University Press.