NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Rutgers University President Robert Barchi said recent revisions to a longstanding policy governing the line between a protest and a disruption haven’t clamped down on political speech and activities on campus.
But the school’s faculty union and other activists—including Carimer Andujar, the rising senior and undocumented immigrant whose status here was recently questioned by federal immigration authorities—disagree. They attended yesterday’s June 15 Board of Governors meeting in New Brunswick to voice various concerns with the updated policy, specifically a provision against demonstrations that interfere with vehicle or pedestrian traffic.
In response, the board’s incoming chair, Sandy Stewart, said he and the administration will further review the policy change.
“I would like to sit down with [Barchi] and see what we can resolve with that,” Stewart said. “We’ll discuss it. We’ll go back to the committee.”
Two resolutions in question, which the board approved in April, define what constitutes a disturbance that violates Rutgers policy. Among other things, the revisions list a number of actions—from obstructing traffic and damaging property to disrupting university business—that infringe upon the rights of others, according to the policy.
Rutgers used to define a disruption as anything that interfered with people’s right to go about their business or other university activities. The new rules tightened the language to include more specific definitions, according to the document.
The policy also champions the university’s belief in freedom of expression and its significance in academia. But activists saw the regulations as a threat to those values.
“As a university—which is supposed to be a beacon for the free exchange of ideas, a place where we can safely and civilly exchange those and express ourselves—it’s a very, very poor move to create a new policy that is more specific and represses things,” said Rob Scott, a professor who studies human evolution.
Andujar, meanwhile, said she benefitted from protests that could be barred under the policy. When her status in this country came into question, activists staged a rally at Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus and one outside the federal building in Newark.
“We’re more or less concerned with how this is going to be carried out, and if there are going to be certain biases toward certain students,” Andujar said.
Over the past academic year, Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus has come alive with protests, most of them against U.S. President Donald Trump and his policies.
During the meeting, activists claimed the revised policy would ban protests like the Jan. 31 #NoBanNoWall rally, which resulted in road closures as demonstrators marched through the streets.
Prior the march, Barchi delivered a speech at that event, rousing the roughly 2,000 people in attendance.
The Rutgers president noted that, following the policy’s adoption, protests and marches occurred on and near the campus. Some obstructed traffic, he said, but he didn’t declare them a disruption.
“Basically, there is no difference between these two,” Barchi said of the former and current policies, “in terms of what you as a student may or may not do.”
Before the meeting, David Hughes, the head of the AAUP-AFT faculty union, sent a letter to the Board of Governors lambasting the disruption policy. What’s more, he claimed, it was developed without consultation from the faculty union and other campus groups and bodies.
“The resultant policy threatens to undermine political, religious and other forms of speech on campus,” Hughes wrote, “and, thereby, to narrow the creativity and plurality of opinion characteristic of Rutgers.”
At one point, Barchi asked Hughes a yes-or-no question: If the board removed language regarding what, exactly, defines a disruption, would the faculty union be OK with the policy?
Hughes said it would be an improvement, but he continued to push for the board to rescind the resolutions.
Once again, Barchi argued, cutting that section wouldn’t make much of a difference. Rather, he said, it would make the policy more vague.
The president said only he and one other administrator have the authority to label a gathering or action a disruption.
“That puts it at a very, very high bar,” he said.
Barchi acknowledged that his administration didn’t reach out to Hughes and the faculty union when crafting the policy. He said a board member who oversees Rutgers’ senate was involved in the process, but then that man, Peter Gillett, said he didn’t attend the meeting in which it was discussed.
The fate of the policy is unclear. The board meets next in July.