The People’s University of Providence

“There are no universities left in Gaza,” read one sign from Brown’s encampment for Palestine, which officially came to a close yesterday. The sign faced University Hall, an administrative building, and telegraphed one of the many themes of the encampment: that divestment, among many other, perhaps more pressing, issues, is also an educational issue. Because Brown has repeatedly shooed away calls for divestment under the powerful banner of being A University—a title that supposedly carries nonpolitical implications—the eighty-some students who have chosen to pitch tents in full violation of student-conduct policies are making a point with their teach-ins. If Brown wants to make this about education, the students will make this about education.

After months of unrest at Brown, following 61 arrests, a hunger strike and now the encampment, all parties can at least agree that this has been no normal academic year. Everything, from dining-hall food to an economics exam, has in some way touched on Palestine. That discursive rewiring is a goal of the organizers who have been working for months towards divestment: “Do not stop talking about Palestine,” reads a welcome message staked in one corner of the encampment. Intentionally or not, this radical shift in the stakes of college politics has undermined the idea of college itself. Writing a paper about Thomas Mann starts to feel irrelevant when, on a break from the library, you chant at the university to stop investing your money in bombs and arms.

And yet, as banners and flags pollinated the main green last week, I noticed another kind of university quietly germinating. This university differs from the Germanic ideal in many ways: students gather for dabke dance tutorials and screen-print watermelons onto tank tops. But this is a university in the true spirit of the Latin universitas, “a whole.” There were many moving parts to the encampment, but what seemed to matter most was just that, the encampment. As long as it was standing, there was something to rally around.

But would that be enough for this new university? On Monday morning, as the haze produced by vapes and cigarettes again descended upon the waking encampment on its sixth day, the “people’s university” was in strife. The group chat was “blowing up.” Some were frustrated by the encampment’s apparent cooperation with Brown’s Department of Public Safety, as officers regularly strolled through to swipe IDs. Others thought the messaging in the camp was going too far. One protester complained that in pursuit of larger crowds, the organizers had sacrificed integrity, while another said the camp had convinced him finally that a genocide was taking place. Several left the camp altogether, while others hurriedly joined in.

Unlike the university administrators who are so eager to reduce higher education to a matter of codes and numbers, however, the students seemed mostly in favor of the wild heterogeneity that governed the camp. A copy of Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason laid bookmarked in the dirt next to another camper streaming Vanderpump Rules. The relationship between neoliberal capital and Palestinian exploitation was being ironed out by a circle of friends, while another group played soccer. Several Jewish students sang “Ma Tovu” in rounds; activists vogued to beats hammered out on pots and pans nearby. At times, the camp seemed to be held together by the thinnest thread of sense, but maybe that was the point. As a friend told me, “The problem is that we know nothing.” Or, he corrected, “We don’t know anything except: bad.” The badness of the world seemed to sustain the group, at least through the night.

Then, on Tuesday, things shifted. The haze of vapor and smoke dissipated as negotiations over the status of the encampment improved. The president had reconsidered: if the encampment was gone by 5 p.m., the Corporation would vote on divestment come October, an ask that had gone unanswered for six months. The plan was signed. Students broke into cheers. For the first time in years, there was a win for divestment at Brown.

Well, a win within A University. Walking along the path that separates University Hall from the main green, on that border which divided the two universities for a brief week, I again wondered about the importance of the campus at all. What did it matter how a corporation of wealthy alumni voted on this issue? Wasn’t it already too late? As one student put it, “There will be no win until the universities are rebuilt in Gaza.” And what would rebuilding even look like? Hadn’t this idea of A University, in some sense, tragically and totally failed us? Didn’t we still know nothing?

I voiced my frustration to a few of the campers. They all seemed to agree that this dissonance was irreconcilable. That was the position into which the University, and the West more broadly, had forced its dissidents. We ended up arguing with President Paxson rather than President Biden; we had to free ourselves from conduct violations in lieu of actually liberating others. As one student told me, this was especially obvious in the camp. They were once asked to shout out their end goals, and a few people shouted divestment. Then there was a pause, followed by shouts of ceasefire. Finally, someone shouted Palestinian liberation, which seemed to be the consensus. It was as though there was “a collective Freudian slip and then we corrected ourselves.”

Maybe the university is still important for learning how to undertake this kind of collective process. That’s what one Palestinian student told me, pushing back against my pessimism. He recounted how important universities had been as centers of Palestinian resistance internationally. They are “necessary starting points for change,” he said. I wondered if some version of that change was fomenting on the tarps splayed out over Brown’s main green.

The encampment is still full of doubts—doubts about conduct violations, about the likelihood of divestment, about the fate of Palestinian liberation. But, as the bell rang for class and the deals of the negotiations were announced yesterday around 1 p.m., campers hugged each other and cried, draped in keffiyehs. The students had learned something.