Columbia ends in-person classes as protests spread across US

University’s president in tough situation, with lawmakers escalating tensions, students angered by quick use of police force, and encampments elsewhere drawing similar responses

April 23, 2024
Alma Mater statue at Columbia University
Source: iStock/Steve Rosenbach

Columbia University cancelled in-person classes for the remainder of the spring semester, and protests across other US campuses grew more confrontational, as conservative lawmakers persisted in using Middle East tensions to pursue their campaigns against academic free expression.

Pro-Palestinian sympathisers – both students and faculty – were arrested in demonstrations at New York University and Yale University, two among several US institutions where activists have replicated the decision by Columbia students to wage multi-day sit-in campus protests.

The uprisings date back to the deadly October incursion into Israeli territory by Palestinian militants, and were amplified last week when Columbia’s president, Baroness Shafik, was called before the education committee of the Republican-led US House of Representatives in Washington and was repeatedly prodded to punish expressions of perceived antisemitism.

Unlike her Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania counterparts – who resigned their posts after being slow to accept similar demands from the committee – the Columbia president ordered the arrests of her protesting students before she even returned to New York City from the US Capitol.

That action, however, has left the Columbia president facing resignation demands both from her own students, some of whom resumed sit-in demonstrations despite the arrests, and later from many of the Republican lawmakers, who dislike her reluctance to keep ordering even more arrests.

“Your failure to enforce the rules on campus has created an environment in which students and outside agitators know they are able to operate with impunity and without any accountability,” a group of 10 House members wrote to the Columbia president.

The Palestinian attack in October killed an estimated 1,200 people in Israel. Israeli military attacks since then against Gaza have killed an estimated 34,000 people. US lawmakers and numerous top donors to top-ranked US universities have nevertheless registered alarm only over campus speech that questions Israel’s behaviour, reflecting the dominant political perspective of Americans with wealth and Christian affiliations.

Other US campuses where students have raised tent encampments to back Columbia’s pro-Palestinian protesters – beyond NYU and Yale – include the University of Michigan, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, Vanderbilt University, Emerson College and The New School in New York. In several cases, students promised to persist with their demonstrations past the imminent end of their spring semesters.

About four dozen students were arrested at Yale, and a number of students and faculty were arrested at NYU.

Harvard University blocked public access to its main lawn to head off demonstrations, and suspended the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee, without giving a reason.

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, a leading critic of academic freedom, suggested to reporters that universities should expel any pro-Palestinian student protesters and take steps toward revoking the study visas of any foreign students who join them.

A Columbia University undergraduate, Henry Sears, who plays a leadership role in his campus chapter of J Street – a politically left-of-centre Jewish advocacy group – said that US politicians were correct to point out the rise in virulent antisemitic language that he and his classmates have been hearing.

But overall, Mr Sears told Times Higher Education, such lawmakers appear to be exacerbating tensions and not acting in the best interests of Jewish students. “They are using Jewish students and antisemitism as a political football to further their own agenda against what they see as elite universities,” said Mr Sears, a senior majoring in political science and Middle Eastern studies.

In a sign of that, some students in the pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia and elsewhere marked the start of Passover – one of the most important Jewish holidays – with traditional Seder observances.

The Columbia president, meanwhile, appeared to be trying to avoid the fate of the Harvard and Penn leaders who resigned after their congressional appearances, Mr Sears said. “The administration is in a very difficult position now,” he acknowledged. But calling New York City policers on to campus to arrest students only escalated the situation, he said, “and resulted in many of the protests outside the gates, which is where a lot of the antisemitic rhetoric and actions have been coming from”.

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Reader's comments (1)

This is what happens when Columbia fails to appoint a President with the right and proper credentials !