Policing Protests: The New Dean’s Response to Student Activism

Student activism is an integral part of life at Tufts, which is why Camille Lizarríbar’s appointment as the new dean of student affairs is particularly relevant. Lizarríbar’s hiring sheds light on controversy surrounding her response to student protests as dean of student affairs at Yale. During Lizarríbar’s time at Yale, campus police was brought into the mix during these protests, making students feel uncomfortable and undervalued. When questioned about these incidents, the Tufts administration said they have the “utmost confidence in Dean Lizarríbar’s support of free expression, which she made abundantly clear in [the] interview process,” expressing little concern about the use of law enforcement on student protests. On the other hand, student activist groups on campus have expressed discomfort regarding her use of campus police. As the new dean of student affairs, Lizarríbar inherits a rich history of student activism and protest at Tufts, and with that, the administration’s history of involving the Tufts University Police Department.

 Tufts began its search process for the new dean last July when former Dean Mary Pat McMahon left the position. This January, Tufts announced that Lizarríbar, former dean of student affairs and senior associate dean at Yale College, will be assuming the role of Tufts’ new dean of student affairs and chief student affairs officer for the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering. Lizarríbar, originally from Puerto Rico, received a B.A. from Brandeis and a law degree and P.h.D in comparative literature from Harvard. She will come to Tufts with a decade of experience as a dean at Yale, including four years as the dean of student affairs. 

  However, Lizarríbar’s appointment has called attention to past controversy regarding two protests in 2019 that occured during her time as dean of student affairs at Yale. The first incident occurred last spring when students set up an encampment to protest a portion of Yale’s financial aid policy called ‘student effort’—the university’s expectation of students to contribute back to the university through summer employment and work-study as part of their financial aid package. Protesters argued that student effort had a negative effect on the student experience and that the measure was particularly harmful for students of color and low-income students. The administration became involved once the protesters moved their encampment indoors. Lizarríbar told protesters that if they did not vacate the building, campus police would cite them for trespassing. The protesters reluctantly left but expressed their unhappiness with the administration’s response to the Yale Daily News. One protester specifically mentioned their outrage with the administration, “sending [Dean Lizarríbar] to threaten [them] with the police.” Another added that the response conveyed the “lack of regard Yale has for the concerns of…low-income students of color.”

In November 2019, students staged a protest against a Yale professor outside of her classroom, where they accused the professor of being a war criminal due to her military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Initially planning to enter into the professor’s classroom and distribute pamphlets voicing their opposition, the student protesters were barred from entering the classroom by Lizarríbar, who cited university policy allowing professors to decide who can and cannot enter their classroom. Instead, the group “chanted, sang, stomped, and yelled through the classroom’s windows” in an attempt to get the professor’s attention. Lizarríbar, accompanied by a Yale police officer, repeatedly told the protesters to lower their voices. The organizers said to the Yale Daily News, “I’m appalled and horrified at how no one will talk to us engage with us and instead perceive us as a threat.” In an email to the Tufts Observer, Lizarríbar referred to these incidents as “institutional matters.”

As Lizarríbar prepares to make the transition to Tufts, questions may arise of her aforementioned controversies at Yale will affect Tufts’s culture of student activism. Tufts has a long history of a student body active in social justice. In 1969, Tufts students organized a day long boycott to protest the Vietnam War. In 1977, the cannon was painted for the first time to protest the visit of a Philippines government official. More recently, in 2015, Tufts students made national headlines after a five day long hunger strike to protest the administration’s plan to fire over 30 janitors. 

The Yale encampment protest poses striking similarities to Tufts’ response to a 2015 sit-in, where a large group of students—primarily members of Tufts Climate Action—occupied Ballou Hall to demand divestment from fossil fuels. The Tufts Daily reported that students were warned by the administration not to violate campus policies regarding “unauthorized entry into a non-public area [or] a private office.” In contrast to the threat of police action during the Yale protests, Tufts threatened protesters with disciplinary action. Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon asked protesters to report their student ID numbers and names. Protesters refused “under the impression that this could result in targeting [them] after or before the sit-in.”  

In response to Lizarríbar’s handling of student protests at Yale, Tufts Climate Action told the Tufts Observer that they welcomed Dean Lizarríbar to campus and hoped that she would be an ally to all student activists. However, they added, “the incidents that occurred at Yale University should be concerning to all student activists and members of the Tufts community as they indicate a reliance on law enforcement to quash protests.”

Krithi Ram-Junnarkar, the Community Outreach Director of Tufts’ South Asian Political Action Community, stated that “student activism is an important part of student life at Tufts, and peaceful protest should not be outright shut down by administrators.” Additionally, Ram-Junnarkar expressed particular concern about the safety of students of color as they are featured in protests “in numbers disproportionate to their presence in the school,” adding that she is “worried about the impact that Lizarríbar’s actions will have on the Tufts student body.”

Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), another Tufts student activist organization, also expressed their concern with Lizarríbar’s actions. They pointed out that by involving law enforcement, Lizarríbar did not prioritize the safety and well-being of students. Further, SJP echoed South Asian Political Action Community’s concern for students of color, commenting “when the students protesting were students of color, Lizarribar’s choice to respond with police or threat of police shows her disregard for ensuring students feel genuinely safe on campus.” They noted that this is particularly important in light of the TUPD’s history of “acting with undue force.” 

When asked to comment on these incidents, Chris Swan, the dean of undergraduate education, who chaired the search committee for the new dean along with Samuel Thomas, the dean of academic affairs for Arts and Sciences, commented that they “haven’t heard about [the incidents],” while other members of the administration and the search committee declined to comment. Shannon Lee, president of Tufts Community Union Senate and a member of the search committee, explained why she could not speak to Lizarríbar’s involvement in the controversy: “I do not know what role she took on during that time. However, many, if not all, higher ed[ucation] institutions have had some controversial issues come up in the past, and it would be impossible to find a candidate who has only worked at a perfect college or universities.” Similarly, Deans Swan and Thomas commented that “based on our interactions, we gather that she’s very committed to listening to students and making them feel heard.”

  Even though the Tufts Administration declined to comment specifically on the Yale protests, the administration did stress their confidence in Lizarríbar’s commitment to freedom of expression. In a joint statement, Dean Jianmin Qu of the School of Engineering and Dean James Glaser of Arts and Sciences said that they “have utmost confidence in Dean Lizarríbar’s support of free expression, which she made abundantly clear in our interview process.” They added that the dean is “committed to the freedom of community members to express themselves fully while respecting the rights of others and maintaining a climate conducive to learning in which all community members, regardless of background, are free from behavior that interferes with their ability to study, grow, and attain their full potential.” 

The administration primarily focused on freedom of expression and did not touch on the involvement of law enforcement—the original impetus of controversy that angered Yale students.  

While Lizarríbar is set to join the Tufts community in late July, her appointment has already prompted reflection on Tufts’s history as an activist’s campus and the administration’s role in that legacy. Tufts student activism has a pivotal role in the history of the university and has cultivated a strong reputation for itself. With every addition to our community, there is a new opportunity to shape the school. How this new dean will shape Tufts is yet to be discovered. For now, all students can do, as stated by TCA, is “hope that Dean Lizarríbar will respect and uphold Tufts’ vibrant culture of student activism.”