Editorial: Amid the chaos, America’s elite campuses can’t educate. University presidents have to turn that around.

On Monday afternoon, New York’s Columbia University looked like a military installation, not one of the most storied institutions of learning in the United States.

The campus gates, festooned with balloons designed to “welcome” newly admitted students, all were padlocked shut. Columbia’s main, beaux-arts campus occupies more than six city blocks in the Morningside Heights area of Manhattan and around its huge perimeter Monday were stationed security guards about every 10 feet. At one of the main gates on Broadway, a strikingly large phalanx of police stood by in riot gear as protesters, many of them wearing the keffiyeh, the traditional black-and-white Palestinian scarf, chanted, over and over, “normalize the intifada” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” We heard it with our own ears.

Campus protests often throw up striking contrasts, especially on beautiful spring days. While the protesters on the outside likely weren’t affiliated with the university, closed as the campus was to anyone without a valid school ID as if this were the heart of the pandemic, the more youthful insiders who have set up a tent city within the campus quad were getting multiple pizzas delivered. Smiling runners, their faces shining with idealism, were squeezing the pies through the wrought iron. Outside on Amsterdam Avenue, Jewish students who had not followed the advice of one (not all) of their rabbis and gone home for Passover were walking by, a few looking worried but most, being New Yorkers now, affecting unconcern.

The scene was much the same downtown at New York University, which is integrated into Lower Manhattan and thus not as easy for the authorities to close off to outsiders. There, protesters had occupied the front of the Stern School of Business and on Monday night, police could be seen moving in. Yale and Harvard universities have, to varying degrees, seen similar protests, although Columbia clearly has been taken over physically in ways its peer institutions mostly haven’t.

What to make of all this? Protesting military action and the investments university endowments make is a storied part of the college experience, dating back to those who decried the Vietnam War. But as students at Kent State University found out in 1970, it can all go very wrong in the heat of the moment. And it was pretty clear Monday that Columbia, at least, was no longer in any mental or physical position to teach anybody much of anything, at least beyond the art of protest and realpolitik.

For anyone paying annual tuition of more than $68,000, plus housing and food, the switch to remote or hybrid learning this week hardly was reassuring. It is, in fact, a betrayal of the university’s contractural obligation. This isn’t an act of God — another pandemic — that’s impeding Columbia’s mission. Columbia and others have kneecapped themselves by failing to do their most important job — provide a stable, nurturing learning environment.

This has to get fixed. University gates have to stay open. Critical thinking has to regain its centrality. Hardened positions have to yield to compromise and peace, or at the very least expressed without making academic life impossible. Empathy for all sides in a complex situation must make a campus comeback, starting in the Office of the President.

Elite university presidents, with rare exceptions, utterly failed to anticipate what was coming their way after Hamas attacked Israel and Israel responded in a way that killed thousands of civilians in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s enemy having hidden among them. And in the light of those failures, leaders such as Nemat (Minouche) Shafik of Columbia now find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Shafik, Columbia’s president, has been hauled before Congress and accused of failing to stem antisemitism on campus, self-evidently the case. She also now faces a vote of no confidence by her own faculty, some of whom are furious that she disclosed information to Congress about pending internal campus investigations which faculty would like to remain confidential. Shafik, to mangle another apt cliche, thus finds herself closing the campus gates but only after the protesters already are inside and now are near-impossible to remove without damaging headlines and widespread fury, at a minimum.

One can sympathize with Shafik and her peers, even if many of them have proved to be staggeringly inept at overseeing campus life in this fraught time. It appears that crisis management experience was at the bottom of search committees’ lists.

Students who have taken up the Palestinian cause are understandably angry at the human suffering in Gaza. With Democrats far from assured of beating Donald Trump in crucial swing states such as Michigan and Israel still dependent on U.S. military and fiscal support, protesters sense that their actions are having an impact on Joe Biden’s rhetoric. They’re no doubt correct, although their effect on still-traumatized Israel is another matter.

If nothing substantial has changed by the summer, what’s happening in New York carries a warning for Chicago as it hosts the Democratic National Convention, which will not be a moment to be caught flat-footed. The number of U.S.-based protesters who have taken up the Palestinian cause is greater than many Americans realize. Tents are easier to prevent than tear down. Chicago has a mayor who has taken a side in this matter, which means he will struggle to be seen as a fair mediator. He needs to plan ahead.

Reports are emerging of students, especially Jewish students, preferring to avoid some of these elite Northeastern campuses, instead choosing schools in the South, where the experience is less abrasive, or campuses such as Brandeis University or the University of Chicago, which appear to be more on top of the situation when it comes to safeguarding the learning environment from polemical extremists and their obstructions.

If revenue or all-important prestige takes a hit, Ivy League presidents and boards of trustees may soon find that Congress is not their only antagonist. Many parents, donors and alumni already aren’t happy, particularly those who are Jewish, as they begin to see an entire year of a four-year experience dominated by uncivil arguments over events thousands of miles away.

The universities mostly have themselves to blame.