In attempting to understand the student protests at Princeton resulting in the arrest of two graduate students for constructing tents and refusing to remove them from an encampment in McCosh Courtyard (published online April 25, 2024), I was prompted to seek the wisdom of John Cardinal Newman, memorialized in his lectures on being appointed the first rector of University College, Dublin, published in 1873 as The Idea of a University.

I suggest that all University leaders and faculty consider Cardinal Newman’s wisdom, which I present in edited form: “though they [the students] cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few of the sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an  intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. … A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation , and wisdom… . This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.”

To paraphrase and elaborate on Cardinal Newman, the University is a place, sequestered from the pragmatic demands and pressures of the outside world, where students engage with each other, under the guidance of their teachers, in reasoned discourse, devoid of coercion, threats, intimidation, manipulation, and all of the tactics employed by the current “protesters” in support of one side or the other in the current Middle East conflict.

If these tactics are anathema to the “idea of a university,” then those who practice these tactics within the University are akin to a person who brings a baseball bat to a tennis match. They are not arrested, unless they commit a crime, criticized, or even expelled. They just don’t belong. And, since the idea of the University is to teach, students are reminded of “the idea of a university,” and should be instructed to disperse.

So as to not appear self-righteous, I must confess that the writer and two accomplices were “punished” by Dean William Lippincott by being suspended from the university for the entire Thanksgiving holiday for painting “Men” and “Women” on the pediments of Whig and Cliosophic Halls. We were appropriately given a warning to thereafter follow University rule, and we understood that this was the first and last such disciplinary action we would face, and all three graduated successfully and without further incident.

Similarly, those who refuse to disperse, after being made aware of their future if they refuse to disperse, should receive the simple statement: “We accept your withdrawal from the University.” You don’t bring a baseball bat to a tennis match just as you don’t act outside of the prescribed standards of the University to address thorny issues by resorting to coercion, threats, manipulation, or provocation to advance your agenda. You just don’t belong, and you quietly leave.

This is not to say that this should be the end of the discussion or absolve the University of responsibility. I can say, as a psychiatrist of more than four decades, that passions such as those expressed by the protestors cannot be merely wished away or decided in one direction or another by a nonexistent authority. The concerns of people on either side are real and, by some estimations, irreconcilable. They are both also true. Which is exactly what Cardinal Newman envisioned as the purpose of a university: to promote dialogue between people of irreconcilable beliefs.

The world has seen this in the microsphere of Seeds of Peace, where teenagers from Israel and Palestine spend a month living together in an isolated camp in Maine, starting out as bitter enemies and end as the strongest of friends. I suggest that, when the University foresees, or sees a convulsive episode beginning, that they charge the Whig Cliosophic Society to fulfill its historic role: to convene a series of ongoing conferences open to the entire University, where those of opposing viewpoints can engage in reasoned discussion of the subject, with no expectation of any outcome save mutual understanding. Then, I suggest that the University will have fulfilled its role in our society.

William J. Chambers ’67
New York, N.Y.