Fordham University Foreshadows a Campus Culture of Growing Repression

The small Catholic university banned Students for Justice in Palestine in 2016. Amid protests and crackdowns, the move has become increasingly popular.

Sophie Hurwitz   ·   May 9, 2024
The encampment at Fordham University on May 1, 2024. | Sophie Hurwitz

About an hour before first period on May 1, a few dozen students streamed into the lobby of a classroom building at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. Instead of tapping their ID cards with the nearby security guard as required, they rushed in through the exit door and arrayed tents in a clump. It was a smaller version of the same scene that has arisen across college campuses in recent weeks: Fordham’s iteration of the Gaza solidarity encampment, built not 12 hours after the NYPD toppled similar protests at the City College of New York and Columbia University — using batons, spraying tear gas, and firing a gun.

Fordham swiftly joined its neighbors in unleashing the NYPD on its students. But in many respects, it has been in the fight for longer. In the courts and through its internal governing structures, the small, Catholic university has spent the better part of the past decade combatting pro-Palestinian organizing on its campus. The school banned its Students for Justice in Palestine club in late 2016, and though the move seems popular now, it was rare at the time. In a first-of-its-kind free speech battle, students sued their school, but years later, Fordham still suppresses the club.

Students and alumni who spoke to New York Focus describe Fordham’s environment as repressive, one that stifles activist organizing and discourages dissent. As more colleges deploy armed police on their students and ban politically motivated organizations, Fordham offers an example of a school where a chilling effect has set in for years — and is gradually being overcome.

“There hasn’t necessarily been an activist spirit, [or a] politically involved spirit to the Fordham campus at least throughout my time, and I started in 2020,” said J, a Fordham student who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity due to privacy concerns. “I think a good amount of that might have been stomped out.”

Several students present at the encampment noted a dissonance between the school’s atmosphere and its marketing. As a slogan, Fordham encourages students to “go forth and set the world on fire.” Its current strategic plan positions Fordham as a social justice-oriented university, and its website notes that “All of [Fordham’s] various parts seek to insert themselves in the world on the side of the poor, the marginalized, and those seeking justice.”

“I remember students were so afraid to speak up about what’s going on that they’d meet in the basement with the doors shut just to say the word Palestine,” said a Fordham law student with family in Gaza. “Now, I see students like me who have begun to openly support Palestine and put keffiyehs on their backpacks, like I was once questioned for doing even prior to October.”

On Thursday afternoon, students and alumni are holding another rally aimed at “demanding justice, accountability, and an end to campus policing.”

“We’re taught social justice in our classes, but then when we do gather and protest peacefully, they’re against it.”

—Paulina, Fordham sophomore

New York Focus reached out to three deans’ offices and a trustee for their thoughts on the characterization of Fordham as a repressive institution. None responded to a request for comment.

Like its neighboring institutions in New York City, Fordham has led its recent crackdowns with the local government on its side. Campus protests have come “out of nowhere,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a press conference on Tuesday, calling them “something that no one could have thought about.”

A week before launching the encampment, the organizers held a press conference laying out their goals and motivations. The Palestinian Fordham law student spoke of her family in Gaza. She said 51 of her relatives have been killed since October 7.

“May their attempts to force you into silence be further motivation to raise your voice for change,” she told the assembled students. “Gazans see you. My family sees you. And they need us to continue to fight for them.”

According to Fordham alumni, the current movement is the product of almost a decade of activism. Because of the “culture of suppression,” said an alum who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of employment repercussions, “obviously it’s been underground.”

Back in 2016, a group of Fordham University students wanted to start their own chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a national organization that states its purpose as “uplifting demands for freedom, justice, and equality for the Palestinian people.” The student government approved the request, but the school’s then-dean of students overruled them and denied SJP club status. The organization’s political goals “clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University,” the dean wrote in an email to students.

The students took the school to court, and well over a year later, they won. “It must be concluded that [Fordham University’s] disapproval of SJP was made in large part because the subject of SJP’s criticism is the State of Israel, rather than some other nation,” wrote New York Supreme Court Justice Nancy Bannon in her August 2019 ruling, “in spite of the fact that SJP advocates only legal, nonviolent tactics aimed at changing Israel’s policies.”

Not long after the students celebrated their victory, the original petitioners graduated — and their case was overturned on the basis that they were no longer students. Students for Justice in Palestine remains banned at Fordham University to this day.

“There was an atmosphere of panic surrounding the protest.”

—Mark Naison, Fordham professor

Within the past year, several other universities have joined Fordham in banning the club. In November 2023, Columbia University formally revoked club status from its chapter of SJP, along with Jewish Voice for Peace, telling the two organizations they had violated a new club event policy put in place less than two weeks prior. Brandeis University announced it would “no longer recognize” its SJP chapter, and George Washington University suspended SJP for 90 days. In Florida, the backlash reached the state level when Governor Ron DeSantis tried to ban all pro-Palestinian student groups from Florida university campuses.

At Fordham, some of the original SJP petitioners, now graduated, returned to their alma mater to join the encampment. As the ongoing Israeli attack on Gaza continues to kill Palestinian people — more than 35,000, likely a dramatic undercount — Fordham students and alumni demand that the university disclose how much of its $1 billion endowment goes to entities linked to the state of Israel, divest from those holdings, “and ensure transparency in its financial operations, allowing students to verify that their tuition fees do not support oppression.” (Most of Fordham’s holdings are not public, with the exception of the $2 million in its Student Managed Investment Fund. According to a December 2023 performance review, the fund invests in companies like Northrop Grumman and Huntington Ingalls Industries — two suppliers of weapons, artillery, and other hardware to the Israeli military.) And they want to reinstate SJP.

“What the lawsuit showed us is that Fordham was willing to pour thousands of dollars into legal fees, just to fight the formation of a club,” said former SJP petitioner Sofia Dadap, who returned to her alma mater to be present at the May 1 protest.

Twenty minutes after the students’ encampment went up last week, all entrances to the building were locked and guarded. By the time the students had been there for two hours, they were outnumbered by police. With press barred from entry, this reporter pressed a handwritten note with a phone number against the windows from outside. One called from inside: “The NYPD’s in here.”

Facilities staff and police drop a tarp over the Fordham University encampment on May 1, 2024. | Sophie Hurwitz

Fifteen people who stayed inside Fordham’s Gaza solidarity encampment were arrested and charged with trespassing last Wednesday. For students, the arrests came with interim suspensions, while for alumni, they carried a ban from campus “until further notice.”

“I guess that will be my last time walking through those halls,” said Julie Norris, an alum who was among the original SJP petitioners. The alumni said current students invited them to join, and current students agreed. “Fordham leverages being in NYC, and the NYC community, to draw in students,” one student organizer said. “But now they’re trying this distinction to create the outside agitator narrative. ... It’s categorically false.”

In a letter to the Fordham community sent last Wednesday evening, Fordham President Tania Tetlow claimed that the majority of those involved in the protest outside were “not members of our community.” As for those inside, Tetlow said, “NYPD arrested fifteen people for misdemeanor trespassing. We believe some of those were Fordham students.”

The private institution’s leaders have often echoed the rhetoric of public officials. Mayor Adams spent the first week of May asserting that protesters at New York City universities were “outside agitators,” who “ train people to do destructive things.” In a statement to New York Focus, the NYPD confirmed that 15 people were arrested at an “unauthorized demonstration,” but would not say how many were students.

On the day of the arrests, those inside the encampment said every person arrested was a student or an alum. A letter released by Fordham professors to NBC News said the same. Outside the encampment, where hundreds showed to demonstrate last week, nearly everyone who spoke to New York Focus said they were affiliated with the university.

According to Fordham professor Mark Naison, who was an anti-war demonstrator as a Columbia student in 1968, “there was an atmosphere of panic surrounding the Fordham protest.” He said the allegations of “outside agitators” had little bearing on the reality on campus, but the panic came from “the NYPD putting pressure on the administration.”

Naison is more outspoken than most Fordham professors, known for writing and posting on Facebook about his relationship to the campus protests as a former student activist and a Jewish professor. He told New York Focus his colleagues thank him privately. “I can’t tell you how many faculty members have told me, thanks for posting what you do — I can’t do this, I would be fired.”

“May their attempts to force you into silence be further motivation to raise your voice for change.”

—Palestinian Fordham law student who has lost 51 relatives in Gaza

A member of Fordham’s three-week-old, unofficial Faculty for Justice in Palestine said that the community was slow on the uptake to the protest movement, but the mood had shifted.

“I think one of the reasons that we’re seeing relatively delayed support at Fordham is because Fordham ranks lowest in terms of free speech among colleges and universities in the country. And there’s been a real chilling effect as a result,” said the faculty member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisal. “So now the students are mobilized, and I think that they’re frustrated and wanting to see something happen.”

Fordham has regularly landed among the bottom 10 in campus free speech rankings across the country, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech advocacy organization that inserts itself into a range of campus debates. The ranking speaks to issues beyond the SJP ban. In the early 2010s, for example, students fought the Catholic university’s refusal to provide birth control via university health services, even in cases of medical necessity. In 2018, students who revealed several years of harassment allegations against a Fordham professor were charged with “dishonesty” by the university.

An hour into last Wednesday’s protest, school maintenance workers and police draped a large blue tarp over the windows between the encampment and its outside supporters, attempting to obscure the signs they hung up. For a moment, the building itself looked like one big, blue tent. But the tarp wasn’t big enough. The students moved to the other side of the window.

A sophomore named Paulina showed up after the police locked down the encampment itself. She’d been arrested at City College the night prior, and she’d been sleeping over at the New School encampment for several nights before that. After a night in jail, she returned to lead chants at Fordham and watch the movement she’d been studying at other schools come home. “I gain more from being at these encampments than any degree could ever give me,” Paulina said.

“We’re taught social justice in our classes, but then when we do gather and protest peacefully, they’re against it,” Paulina said. Fordham students are required to take classes on “faith and critical reason.” The school sent members of the campus ministry to serve as negotiators with the encampment.

Through the glass, as demonstrators waited for baton-toting, riot-helmeted police to come arrest them, former Fordham petitioner Norris could hear hundreds of students outside chanting: “We are all SJP.”

Two days after the encampment was disbanded, students held another sit-in at Fordham’s second campus in the Bronx. On Wednesday, the arrested students had their suspensions lifted — though they are still prohibited from participating in student clubs — while the arrested alumni remain banned from campus. None of the protesters’ demands have been met. Per the university president’s request, police will remain on campus through graduation.

Sophie Hurwitz is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Brooklyn. They were previously the education and criminal-legal system reporter for the St. Louis American. 
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