Colonialism is challenged but also reinforced on university campuses

The campus protests and the crackdown on them reflect the dual role universities have played in colonial history.

an illustration showing people protesting raising a Palestinian flag in front of a university building and a tank
[Jawaher Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Across the United States, universities have become the epicentre of student-led movements opposing Israel’s war on Gaza. Local authorities and university administrations have unleashed intense crackdowns on these demonstrations under the false pretences of protecting campuses and fighting anti-Semitism. But in the face of violence and threats, students have stood their ground, and protests are not showing any signs of subsiding.

What we are witnessing from student protesters is not new. In fact, students have historically been at the forefront of resisting and denouncing colonialism and imperialism.

In the 1530s during the violent colonisation of the Americas, a group of Spanish students at the University of Bologna publicly rejected waging war, deeming it contrary to the Christian religion. The antiwar protest worried the Catholic Church so much that the pope dispatched Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda – a renowned Spanish priest and scholar, who held the strong conviction that the enslavement and dispossession of Indigenous Americans were justified – to deal with the pacifist students.

This kind of dissent and activism has reverberated throughout history. From the students demonstrating against segregation and racism in the US in the 1920s and 1930s, to the protests of the 1960s against the war in Vietnam and the sit-ins against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s, to today’s encampments calling for an end to the genocide in Gaza, student movements have challenged colonialism, militarism and injustice.

From the perspective of the coloniser, such student mobilisation is dangerous. This explains the ongoing violent crackdown against the student protests in the US and some European countries, and it might also explain why all 12 universities in the Gaza Strip have been bombed and destroyed.

But it would be naive to think that universities are only sites of dissent. As student protests have insisted, institutions of higher education actively facilitate and support colonial projects. Places like Harvard, Columbia and many other universities continue to increase their endowments by investing in the likes of Airbnb, Alphabet (the parent of Google) and other companies that conduct business in illegally occupied territory or that have ties to the Israeli military. It is hardly surprising that young people’s mobilisation spurred by the Israeli war in Gaza has also spread into some of these companies with protests being held recently at Google offices.

Beyond their investment choices, universities also contribute to the colonial project by educating students to devise, justify and implement the means and mechanisms of colonialism. The pipeline that delivers recent graduates to the defence industries is well-documented and has been in existence for a long time. And because wars are becoming more reliant on data technologies, new pipelines are being created.

Think about the recent graduates working in companies like Anduril, which recently earned a contract with the US military to develop artificial intelligence-driven unmanned combat air vehicles. These weapons will use data to determine where and what to strike, which the war in Gaza has already shown can result in massive civilian casualties.

The Israeli army has been using Lavender, an AI system designed to produce targets for fighter jets and drones to bomb. Researchers have said the system is using various data sets, including people’s use of messaging apps, to decide on targets, which is leading to many innocent lives lost.

We have to wonder what kind of university education – or rather, miseducation – results in someone being able and willing to design and use an AI system like Lavender. We don’t want students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to graduate with a worldview similar to that of Sepúlveda, who saw the colonised as nothing more than barbarians and slaves whose lives were disposable.

I don’t believe most of my colleagues in STEM are intentionally preparing their students to serve colonial interests. I believe most of them simply don’t see these issues as anything their curricula should address.

As students lead the way in challenging a system of higher education that is complicit in imperial wars and colonialism, we, the faculty, must consider the role we are playing within it. Ethical questions of how science and technology are enmeshed with colonial domination and militarism must be tackled in class.

Universities have long served as a place where students learn to think critically and challenge the status quo; they have also supported and strengthened structures of colonial dominance.

The current campus protests are yet another escalation of the tension between these two roles. The demonstrations may not result in a complete overhaul of the system of higher education, but they are certainly pushing in the right direction.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.