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Colleges Have a New Source of Protest on Their Hands: Irate Parents

Frustrated parents are pushing back against university responses to the Gaza protests

By Clare Ansberry, Oyin Adedoyin and Katherine Hamilton | May 3, 2024 12:03 am ET

Colleges already have a student revolt on their hands. Now their parents are rebelling, too.

Parents paying as much as $90,000 for their sons and daughters to attend elite universities are angry and frustrated with colleges’ responses to the Gaza protests—on both sides of the political divide. Whether their kids are protesting, counterprotesting or trying to stay out of it, parents are demanding that schools do more to keep them safe and learning.

“They are not getting the education they expected and paid for,” says Zev Gewurz, a Boston real-estate lawyer whose daughter is a senior at Barnard College in New York City.

Parents are preparing to push back financially. They are requesting tuition refunds where classes have been canceled and contacting college counselors to ask how to get their money back. Parents are also threatening not to donate in the future.

College officials say they are trying to keep students safe, adding security measures while also trying to respect students’ rights to demonstrate. But tensions have exploded in the past few days.

The tensions are further fraying the relationship between colleges and parents. They add to a drumbeat from more families questioning the value—and hefty price tag—of a college education. The re-evaluation is especially significant for college seniors, whose four years were disrupted by Covid.

Rising criticism

Gewurz says his daughter at Barnard was scheduled to deliver her final thesis this week, followed by a luncheon. The public presentation and guest lunch were canceled, along with in-person classes.

Gewurz says he is writing a letter to the school’s president, criticizing what he views as the school’s inadequate response to what he describes as hate speech. In the meantime, Gewurz texts his daughter several times a day.

“I try to tell her that this is not her fault, and that she is living in a moment in history and needs to keep her head high,” he says.

Barnard, where the estimated cost to attend this academic year is about $90,000, said that “many of us are disappointed” by the restrictions and cancellations as the semester ends.

Other parents say the schools haven’t done enough to protect the protesters.

Sarah Fanning’s daughter was taking a final when some of her peers who were participating in an encampment were arrested at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.

“To charge them with trespassing when they pay to live there is ridiculous,” Fanning said. The university, which said 12 arrests were made, including nine students, said it doesn’t seek punitive action toward its students.

Fanning, who lives in Alexandria, Va., has written emails to school administrators asking them to apologize to the students and allow them to peacefully protest. While she hasn’t received any responses, Fanning is reconsidering donating to the school in the future. If the administration publicly supports the students, she would donate more, but escalation against the students would make her less inclined to give, she says.

“Events that do not follow instructions, attempt to disrupt classes or activities, or endanger the health, safety, and security of our campus community will not be allowed,” UMW President Troy Paino said.

Part of families’ ire stems from the years of work that many put in even before college, with well-off parents hiring tutors and counselors to try to boost their children’s chances of landing a spot at a coveted university.

Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of Command Education, a company that helps students complete competitive-college applications, says that in the past week he has received calls from about 25 parents with students at Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles—both sites of demonstrations in recent days— some wanting full or partial refunds from the colleges their kids attend.

“Physically blocking their child from attending class or a lecture hall is 100% not what they signed up for,” Rim said. “They are beyond upset at what’s going on.”

Parents are also trying to figure out how much guidance to give their kids about navigating what’s happening on campus.

Kim Digilio, whose son is a sophomore at UCLA, is in a Facebook group with other parents of students there. They are sending in screenshots of conversations with their children, updating each other about what’s happening on campus and making calls to the chancellor as they grow frustrated with the university’s response, she says.

For her part, though, she is trying not to get overly involved. She hasn’t reached out to campus administrators and is trying not to say too much to her son.

“I’m trying to act as a safe place to have him share information without piling back in,” she said.

Debra Lynn Eden says she receives several texts a day from her daughter, a junior at Princeton, describing protests that were largely peaceful until this week when students were arrested. Though her daughter isn’t involved in protests, Eden fears that the tensions on campus are causing stress. And Eden is encouraging her to stay away from the action and avoid any media on campus.

“It’s all a giant distraction to the students who are trying to complete their studies in a high-stress environment,” Eden said.

Lana Shami’s daughter is graduating from the University of Southern California, which has canceled its large main stage commencement ceremony. Shami is flying anyway to Los Angeles with other family members for the graduation, which they will mark by going out to dinner and inviting some of her daughter’s friends to go along.

“There will be no celebration at the university where we paid an exorbitant amount of tuition for the past four years,” she says. “It’s a huge letdown.”


Originally published on WSJ. on May 3, 2024

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