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Disputes over the Israel-Hamas war have raised tensions on U.S. campuses

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In the weeks of war between Israel and Hamas, many colleges and universities have hosted both civil and uncivil discourse. There are peaceful protests and vigils, and also threats of violence against Jewish students and members of Palestinian student groups. So how can college officials manage both free speech and student safety? Eboni Pringle is the senior vice president for student life at Kent State University. It's the same school where, in 1974, unarmed students were killed by National Guardsmen during protests during the Vietnam War. Professor Pringle, there have been three events on your campus so far - a protest for Palestine on the K, Hillel with a vigil and the student government meeting with leaders of both. How did those three go?

EBONI PRINGLE: Yeah. Thank you. And thank you for having me this morning. You know, our institutional core values have guided all of our actions here at Kent State. And as you mentioned, Kent State has a long history of activism. And all forms of activism at Kent State have led to sustained and transformational change, such as the formation of our Department of Africana Studies due to the activism of Black United Students and our Department of Peace and Conflict Studies. Civil discourse and activism is in the Kent State DNA. It's at the core of who we are. So our students and the events that you mentioned have been continuing that tradition, engaging in civil discourse while also demonstrating respect and kindness and purpose. And it has resulted in peaceful dialogue.

And I have to say, I've been extremely proud of our community during this very, very difficult time. Our students have expressed concerns. They've demonstrated their freedom of expression and at the same time have respected their fellow students and the community members who may have a different opinion. So it's been challenging to hear the stories, but at the same time, it's been very positive to see how our community has responded.

MARTÍNEZ: Sometimes free speech becomes passionate; it becomes angry and loud. How difficult is it, Professor, for a university to get a feel for when it could also maybe threaten public safety?

PRINGLE: Yeah. Great question. You know, our president welcomed 4,000 new students to campus, highlighting the tension between these core values and what you just talked about. You're right. There is this tension that can be created when we hear from others things that we don't necessarily agree with. But he played the song by Pharoah Sanders, "The Creator Has A Master Plan." I don't know if you're familiar with it, but there's a piece of the song where the dissonance can feel a bit unsettling, but it perfectly illustrates the tension between these core values. And what we have been talking to our students about for a number of years under President Diacon's leadership is really this tension is necessary for all of us to be able to grow and develop and learn from each other, and at the same time - go ahead.

MARTÍNEZ: Well, I'm wondering, so what would be the threshold then for the university to maybe have to escalate a response if something were to get dicey?

PRINGLE: Well, as we've talked about, you know, what we've seen on our campus is that students are working together, and they're espousing our core values. If we were to see any acts of aggression, we have our public safety team here at all times, and they work closely with us to support our students' safe demonstration of core values. We haven't seen that on our campus. What we have seen are our students peacefully engaging in dialogue and expressing their views, and they've been respectful to each other. They've shared their thoughts. And they've worked together to try and make sure our community understands the difficulties.

MARTÍNEZ: Have you heard any student concerns?

PRINGLE: Absolutely. I mean, there's obviously a national dialogue around safety, and our students are noticing and hearing across campuses that, you know, there have been incidents of violence. So they have expressed concerns. And what we've done is worked with our public safety team to ensure our students that they are safe, and we can do the best that we can in working with them to make sure of that.

MARTÍNEZ: Eboni Pringle is the interim senior vice president for student life at Kent State University. Thank you very much.

PRINGLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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