Menu Close
Police in riot gear formed a line to face student protesters at the University of Calgary campus on May 9, 2024. The university said protesters were trespassing and asked for help from police to disperse the groups. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Noah Korver

Student protests: How the university perpetuates colonial violence on campus

At the University of Toronto, student protesters continue to occupy King’s College Circle. They have been camping there since May 2 to draw attention to the atrocities of the war in Gaza. University administrators have recently served a trespass notice to student groups and sought a court injunction to authorize police to apply the notice and arrest protesters. According to the Toronto Star, the University of Toronto hearing dates for the injunction against the encampment are set for June 19 and 20.

Students in the encampment remain adamant in their demands that the university divest from assets that “sustain Israeli apartheid” and cut ties with Israeli academic institutions operating on occupied Palestinian land. Many are now watching to see how the university communicates with the student protesters.

Similar situations are playing out across North America as student protesters demand their universities divest from financial ties to Israel or companies supporting Israeli weapons and technology.

As social scientists, we see how the actions of several universities are not accidental but instead connected to the core of how western universities operate and transmit hegemonic narratives which maintain traditional power dynamics. Much research by scholars backs up our analysis, which is also backed up by our recent first-hand experiences at the University of Calgary with protesters and police.

An older woman speaks into a microphone in front of a crowd
Holocaust survivor Suzanne Weiss addresses a rally outside Convocation Hall on the University of Toronto campus on May 27, 2024. The University of Toronto says it’s taking legal action to clear an encampment of student protesters from its downtown campus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Universities as sites of violence

Three weeks ago, at the University of Calgary, the anti-riot unit of the Calgary Police Service violently dispersed peacefully protesting students in an encampment.

The University of Calgary’s president and vice-chancellor, Ed McCauley, said the community has the right to free speech and protest but temporary structures and “overnight protests are not permitted” due to safety concerns. Similar arguments of safety concerns have been made at other campuses, including the University of Toronto.

In response, legal scholars in Alberta argued that students do have the right to protest on campus and such rights are protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As faculty at the University of Calgary, we feel the recent methods used by our university administration has shaken our fundamental ethical contract with our students. That unwritten contract necessitates that educators grapple with difficult discussions within its campus communities without fear of retribution.

Regardless of the official justifications of police violence on campus, we believe more peaceful avenues of resolutions are possible.

Protesters form a line as police move to clear a protest encampment at the University of Calgary campus, in Calgary, Alta., May 9, 2024. The university said protesters at the encampment were trespassing and asked for help from police, who arrived in riot gear to disperse before starting to tear down fencing and tents. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Noah Korver

Western ways of knowing

Universities replicate power dynamics that endorse and validate white or white-serving narratives while silencing those from voices who are marginalized. This dynamic enacts symbolic violence on voices of Indigenous people, Black people, disabled people, queer and trans people, immigrants of colour and Dalit people from the Global South through assumptions about and omissions of their voices and experiences.

Teaching and learning within the western academy therefore often involves and enables symbolic violence on historically marginalized peoples.

Symbolic violence

Symbolic violence is a form of non-physical violence that is enacted through a systemic reinforcement of hegemonic ways of knowing and being. This way of learning, teaching and doing research in any discipline makes invisible counter-narratives and alternative perspectives. It erases histories of intentional and systemic violence on Indigenous, Black, racialized and marginalized peoples.

Indigenous scholars have identified how settler colonialism shapes environmental education. Western educational systems undermine Indigenous agency by maintaining “core dimensions of settler colonial relations to land.”

Introductory sociology textbooks reify the denial of Palestinians’ long-standing connections to the land while also dehumanizing residents of Palestine. Such representations relegate Palestinians to objects controlled by the Israeli state, and lead to erasure of their voices and histories in university classrooms.

Dominant theories of feminism in the West erase scholarship by women, caste minorities, queer and trans scholars of colour from the Global South. Muslim women in French universities face discrimination due to policies targeted at regulating what they can wear.

Our own research shows how computational models that simulate residential segregation and ethnocentrism in cities are symbolically violent and humiliating for students and immigrants of colour. In other words, our work illustrates that dignity in learning is not independent of how dignity is represented computationally.

To counter these forms of symbolic violence, education scholars have called for designing and implementing teaching approaches that centre solidarity with marginalized peoples.

Solidarity-based teaching calls for social and political justice and change at the heart of learning within and across disciplines of knowledge. We view the on-campus, student-led protests as such a pedagogical space.

Physical violence

Besides symbolic violence, the recent violent suppression of protests for Palestine on university campuses reminds us how universities are also sites of physical violence and collective punishment.

Universities in the United States have used violence in attempts to quash social movements using extreme force. This includes the 1960s-70s anti-Vietnam war protests, the infamous Kent State massacre which deployed militarized police and the 1980s-90s anti-apartheid protests.

As scholars of decolonization, we see the justifications for ratifying physical violence on peaceful protesters by predominantly white university administrations as a form of colonial violence.

Despite universities in the U.S. and Canada adopting the language of “equity, diversity and inclusion,” scholars in Canada have repeatedly voiced concerns about the actual implementation of such policies.

Student protests humanize us

Students’ demands for disclosure of, and divestment from economic and institutional relationships with businesses and institutions directly complicit in violence in Palestine are in ethical alignment with concerns about the oligarchic nature of university endowments and investments previously raised by U.S. scholars.

We need students to make a campus. A university without students is simply a set of laboratories and offices. The ethical way forward is to initiate meaningful and transparent dialogue with the students on the issues that matter to them.

The well-respected philosopher and educator, Paulo Freire reminded us that the problem of humanization is humankind’s central ethical problem. Friere explained: “Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization … as an historical reality.”

Recent student protests lead us to believe that students have taken to heart Freire’s lesson. The students’ demands and protests are essential attempts to humanize the Palestinians in desperate need of a ceasefire. They are engaged in what Friere calls the essential act of life: “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”

A dignity-affirming dialogue with them is the imminent call for the hour, not the continued use of police brutality.


This ‘Don’t Call Me Resilient’ podcast episode from May 16 features professor Pratim Sengupta, who was there the night police engulfed the protesters at the University of Calgary. Also on the podcast is sociologist, Sarita Srivastava, a university leader at OCADU, an arts and design campus in downtown Toronto. Together, they look back on what’s been happening on campuses amid this mass protest but also plot out a new — gentler — way forward than the one we’ve been witnessing.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,700 academics and researchers from 4,983 institutions.

Register now