Protesters agreed to leave. This is what some colleges promised in return

Students of the University of California, Berkeley, chant with a sign that reads “Divest” during a graduation ceremony at Memorial Stadium in Berkley, Calif., on Saturday, May 11, 2024. More than a dozen universities struck agreements with protesters that effectively conceded to some of their demands. Already, the agreements are under fire from all sides. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

FILE —California Highway Patrol officers clash with pro-Palestinian protesters on the University of California, Los Angeles campus in the early-morning hours of Thursday, May 2, 2024. The Academic Senate at the University of California, Los Angeles, voted against two resolutions seeking to rebuke the school’s chancellor, Gene Block, largely over his handling of an attack on a pro-Palestinian encampment two weeks ago. (Mark Abramson/The New York Times)

At the University of California, Berkeley, student activists got their chancellor to agree to support a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. At Rutgers University, they won a promise of scholarships for 10 Palestinian students displaced by the war. Brown University pledged that its board of trustees would vote on divesting from Israel.

As protests over Israel’s military campaign in Gaza have roiled college campuses across the country, dozens of universities have moved to shut down encampments and arrest demonstrators. But more than a dozen institutions have struck agreements with protesters over the past few weeks that effectively conceded to some of their demands.


None of them offer outright pledges to end the billions of dollars that college endowments have invested in companies that are said to support Israel’s occupation, a key demand of most of the protesters; some offer little more than amnesty for students suspended as a result of the protests or vague pledges to widen the curriculum in Palestinian studies.

But already, the agreements have come under criticism from other student activists, who say that not enough concessions were extracted, and from conservatives and Jewish advocacy groups, who complain that they are rewarding students who disrupted campuses and violated university policies.

The agreement at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which included a call for a cease-fire in Gaza and a promise not to punish students involved with the encampment, “sets a dangerous precedent for future incidents on campus,” local Jewish advocacy groups said in a statement.

One university president, Mike Lee, of Sonoma State University, even found himself in trouble with his bosses after he promised protesters Tuesday an academic boycott of Israel, a concession that no other deal included. The next day, Mildred Garcia, the chancellor of the California State University, which Sonoma State is part of, called the agreement “insubordination” and announced that Lee was on leave.

In many ways, the strength of the agreements will depend on what universities do to carry them out — and that involves future negotiations with college administrations and boards of trustees.

Angus Johnston, a historian who studies and supports student activism, said many of the agreements felt like “kicking the can down the road,” buying time without solving much. But he said they nevertheless represented a win for both sides.

“For the administrators, it gets you out of the semester,” Johnston said. “For the students, it keeps the movement alive.”

He added: “These encampments were overwhelmingly going to be disappearing in the coming days and weeks anyway. And so from the student perspective, it is better to go out with a bang and say, ‘We were able to win this and this and this — and we will see you in the fall.’”

Here are some highlights of the agreements.

The dominant demand was divestment from Israel.

No university agreed outright to divestment, which was the rallying cry of student protests across the country.

Many of the agreements explained that university presidents do not have authority over investment decisions, which are generally handled by trustees or investment boards and often require a review process before any changes.

Any divestment from Israel faces major hurdles and is sure to meet significant political and donor backlash. While many student activists successfully pressured their universities to divest from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, and more recently from fossil fuels, there is far less consensus on Israel.

There are also practical hurdles. Many universities’ endowments are handled by outside asset managers, and the distribution of those assets may not be publicly known. Moreover, about two dozen states have laws that could penalize efforts to divest from Israel, though the statutes have been challenged on freedom-of-speech grounds.

Still, some of the agreements opened the door.

The University of Minnesota promised a meeting between students and trustees or investment managers. Harvard agreed to discuss with students its endowment and their questions about its connections to the war in Gaza. The University of Wisconsin-Madison said it would “facilitate access to relevant decision-makers” by July. The University of Washington said Friday that the president and other officials “will meet in person with no more than five student representatives on the divestment request.”

Vassar College said it would “prioritize review” of a military divestment proposal. Johns Hopkins University promised a “timely review of the protesters’ key question of divestment, using the university’s existing process.”

Two institutions, Occidental College and Brown University, promised actual votes on divestment before their university boards. On Thursday, Chapman University in California also reached an agreement under which the university board’s investment committee will hear a divestment proposal from students in September and then vote on it, among other concessions.

Universities gave amnesty or leniency to the student protesters.

As encampments expanded on campus greens, many institutions began to suspend protesters — “involuntary leave,” in university speak.

But under at least two of the agreements, in Milwaukee and at the University of Minnesota, students may be able to avoid this fate; those agreements include a promise of amnesty in university disciplinary measures related to the encampments.

But some colleges did not completely clear students.

Rutgers, Brown and the University of Wisconsin-Madison agreed only that the commitment to end the encampment would be “a favorable mitigating factor” in disciplinary matters.

Support was offered for Palestinian students and scholars.

Several colleges said they would try to support displaced Palestinian students and scholars, but the commitments were vague and relatively small.

Northwestern said it would pay the full cost for five Palestinian undergraduates to attend the university.

Vassar College said it would seek to recruit and support Palestinian students and scholars who had lost educational opportunities since the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7. The college also said it would “support student-led fundraising efforts around refugees” but did not provide more detail.

Rutgers said it would work to “implement support for 10 displaced Palestinian students to finish their education at Rutgers.”

David Levy, a local leader of the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group, slammed the agreement, and other Jewish leaders did so in their communities.

“One wonders if the same will be done for 10 Israeli students displaced by the Oct. 7 attack and its aftermath,” Levy wrote in a May 3 statement, “so that they too can finish their education at Rutgers.”

Universities promised to call for a cease-fire.

Universities have been under a microscope over how they communicate about the events in Israel and Gaza and whose suffering they highlight. At Harvard, for instance, administrators were under intense pressure to denounce the Hamas attacks as terrorism.

Many pro-Palestinian students wanted their universities to call for a cease-fire in Gaza and denounce Israel’s bombing campaign. Most colleges opted not to, perhaps not wanting to take sides in an international conflict and instead heeding calls for “institutional neutrality.”

But in the latest batch of agreements, a few agreed.

On Tuesday, Carol Christ, the chancellor at Berkeley, said she would issue such a statement as part of the deal with students. “Such support for the plight of Palestinians, including protest, should not be conflated with hatred or antisemitism,” she wrote.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee also agreed to join calls for a cease-fire in Gaza.

Evergreen State College, in Washington state, known for its aggressive student activism over the years, agreed to a campuswide statement in which President John Carmichael said he was “horrified and grief-stricken by the violence and suffering being inflicted due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

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