Columbia University Protests: Updates

Student protesters established what they call a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on the Ivy League campus. Here's how the demonstrations are impacting students.
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Updated on June 24, 2024
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  • Columbia University's president on April 17 appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce to address antisemitism on campus.
  • As she testified in Washington, D.C., students set up an encampment on the New York City campus in protest of the Israel-Hamas war.
  • Students faced police sweeps, criminal charges, and disciplinary action from the university.

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik on April 17 appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce to address antisemitism on campus in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

Shafik's testimony, preceded by a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which she outlined her plan to address antisemitism on campus, appeared to avoid the acrimony that helped lead to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania following their appearances before the same House committee.

That same day, however, student protesters established encampments on the New York City campus protesting the Israel-Hamas war. They have pledged not to leave until Columbia's administration meets demands that include divesting from companies that support Israel.

Here's what has happened on Columbia's campus since Shafik appeared before Congress and how it's impacting students.

Prosecutors Drop Charges Against Most Students Who Occupied Hamilton Hall

On June 20, the Manhattan district attorney's office dropped trespassing charges against 31 of the 46 people arrested after the occupation of Hamilton Hall in April, according to the Associated Press.

Students wore masks and blocked security cameras, making it difficult to prove students caused property damage or harm to others, prosecutors said. Also, none of the students had prior criminal histories.

The prosecutors offered deals to 13 other people — including two students — arrested in the occupation that would eventually dismiss charges, but they declined.

"In a show of solidarity with those facing the most extreme repression across the pro-Palestine movement, Hind's Hall arrestees who have been offered deals by the DA have chosen not to accept them," according to a statement by Columbia University Apartheid Divest.

Although the students won't face criminal charges, they're still subject to discipline by Columbia.

Columbia Cancels Main Commencement Ceremony

On May 6, Columbia announced it was cancelling its main commencement ceremony over security concerns in the aftermath of the pro-Palestinian protests on campus.

Commencement was scheduled for May 15.

Instead of the main commencement, Columbia students can attend "smaller scale, school-based celebrations," according to the announcement. The university is also considering an event to replace the main commencement ceremony.

"These past few weeks have been incredibly difficult for our community," the announcement said. "Just as we are focused on making our graduation experience truly special, we continue to solicit student feedback and are looking at the possibility of a festive event on May 15 to take the place of the large, formal ceremony. We are eager to all come together for our graduates and celebrate our fellow Columbians as they, and we, look ahead to the future."

Columbia isn't the only university that canceled its main commencement over safety concerns following pro-Palestinian protests.

The University of Southern California (USC) announced on April 25 that it was canceling its main commencement ceremony, scheduled for May 10, following weeks of controversy and protests.

On April 15, USC canceled its valedictorian's commencement speech, citing safety concerns arising from the fact that the student held pro-Palestine views. Four days later, the university announced it was redesigning the main commencement ceremony and canceling all commencement speeches to keep the focus on celebrating the graduates.

However, after pro-Palestinian protests on campus resulted in the arrests of 93 individuals, USC announced it is canceling its main commencement ceremony, citing new and ongoing safety concerns.

NYPD Sweeps Campus, Clears Encampment and Hamilton Hall

Late April 30, Columbia leadership authorized a New York Police Department (NYPD) sweep of the campus to clear protesters barricaded in Hamilton Hall and in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment.

Police arrested dozens of protesters, slammed them with barricades, and threw one protester down the stairs, according to the Columbia Spectator, the university's student newspaper. Police would not allow any other media organizations or outside observers.

"The events on campus last night have left us no choice. With the support of the University's Trustees, I have determined that the building occupation, the encampments, and related disruptions pose a clear and present danger to persons, property, and the substantial functioning of the University and require the use of emergency authority to protect persons and property," Shafik wrote in an April 30 letter to NYPD.

"With the utmost regret, we request the NYPD's help to clear all individuals from Hamilton Hall and all campus encampments."

In the letter to the NYPD, Shafik requested police presence on campus through at least May 17.

"As of this morning, all our tents have been removed by Columbia," Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine posted on Instagram May 1. "Our hearts ache thinking of the community we built in the last two weeks on our encampment, the national movement that was sparked. The struggle for Palestinian liberation will continue, the student intifada will live on, and we will hold the Gaza Solidarity Encampment deep in our hearts forever."

According to an April 30 Columbia update, the leadership team and Board of Trustees decided to call in the NYPD. It was the second police sweep Columbia has authorized since the encampment started on April 17, despite the fact that Shafik and other leaders previously said that to bring in the NYPD again would be "counterproductive, further inflaming what is happening on campus."

The Columbia chapter of The American Association of University Professors, meanwhile, has alleged that the administration violated university statutes by not consulting faculty during the decision to authorize the NYPD, according to a statement posted to X by Columbia professor Joseph Howley.

"NYPD presence in our neighborhood endangers our entire community. Armed police entering our campus places students and everyone else on campus at risk," the statement reads. "The University President, her senior staff, and the Board of Trustees will bear responsibility for any injuries that may occur during any police action on our campus."

Protesters Occupy Columbia's Hamilton Hall

Early on April 30, after Columbia began suspending students who refused to leave the encampment, dozens of protesters took over Hamilton Hall, an academic building housing the dean's and other administrators' offices.

As a result, Columbia limited Morningside campus access to students who live in one of the on-campus residences and employees who provide essential on-campus services.

Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), one of the encampment organizers, posted a statement to X, saying a group "autonomous" from CUAD took over Hamilton Hall. CUAD reiterated that their encampment protest is peaceful, but commended the protesters occupying the building.

"We are grateful for the brave students and community members who put themselves in harm's way to protest Columbia's complicity," CUAD's statement reads. "Taking over a building is a small risk compared to the daily resistance of Palestinians in Gaza."

According to the statement, the protesters renamed Hamilton Hall to "Hind's Hall" after a Gazan child killed by Israeli Defense Forces in early February as her family tried to flee Gaza City.

Protesters said they plan to occupy the building until Columbia agrees to CUAD's demands to divest from Israel, be financially transparent, and grant amnesty to staff or students punished during the conflict.

This isn't the first time student-protesters have occupied Hamilton Hall.

In 1968, students took over the building to protest gentrification of the West Harlem area, according to the Columbia Spectator.

Hamilton Hall was again occupied by anti-Vietnam War protesters for a week in May 1972, according to The New York Times.

In April 1985, protesters locked themselves inside the building for three weeks, demanding Columbia divest from companies doing business with South Africa as activists worked to end the country's apartheid policies.

Shafik Says Columbia Will Not Divest From Israel

As the Columbia protests entered their second week, Shafik on April 29 announced that the university had failed to reach an agreement with protesters and that the university will not divest from Israel.

She further called for protesters to "voluntarily disperse," saying that their protest had created "an unwelcoming environment for many of our Jewish students and faculty," and threatened to disrupt Columbia's May 15 commencement.

While the university will not divest from Israel, Shafik said it would develop an expedited timeline for the Advisory Committee for Socially Responsible Investing's reviews of students' proposals. Columbia also offered to publish a process for students to access a list of Columbia's direct investment holdings and to increase the frequency of updates to that list of holdings.

Shafik's statement didn't address amnesty for disciplined students, one of the three stated goals of the "Gaza Solidarity Encampment," according to the Columbia Spectator.

NBC News reported on April 29 that notices posted on campus told protesters to disperse by 2 p.m. ET.

The notices said that those who don't vacate by 2 p.m., "will be suspended pending further investigation" and barred from completing the spring 2024 semester, NBC News reported.

"We regret that we need to take these actions, but we must restore order to the campus that all students can complete their work for the term, study for exams, and feel welcome in the community," the notice said.

If the encampment isn't removed, the notice said: "we will need to initiate disciplinary procedures because of a number of violations of university policies. These are policies you agreed to adhere to when you joined our community."

Columbia Bans Student for Saying 'Zionists Don't Deserve to Live'

Columbia on April 26 banned a student and member of CUAD from campus, according to the Columbia Spectator.

Khymani James was banned from campus after a January 2024 video of him surfaced in which he said, "Zionists don't deserve to live."

"Chants, signs, taunts, and social media posts from our own students that mock and threaten to 'kill' Jewish people are totally unacceptable, and Columbia students who are involved in such incidents will be held accountable," Columbia leadership said in an April 26 statement. "We can report that one individual whose vile videos have surfaced in recent days is now banned from campus."

James apologized for his words in a statement posted to his personal X account. CUAD also posted James's statement to its Instagram.

"Khymani's words in January do not reflect his views, our values, nor the encampment's community agreements," CUAD wrote in the caption. "We believe in the sanctity of all life, and believe our work is in changing minds and hearts. We are students with a right to learn and grow. In the same way some of us were once Zionists and are now anti-Zionists, we believe unlearning is always possible and that no human being is static."

Speaker of the House Meets With Jewish Students, Tells Shafik to Resign

House Speaker Mike Johnson met with Jewish students at Columbia on April 24 to discuss their treatment during the protests. He said the students told them they're fearful, can't come to campus, and can't study for finals.

During his press conference, Johnson criticized the administration's response to the protests and said Columbia's move to hybrid classes over safety concerns discriminates against Jewish students.

"I am here today, joining my colleagues, and calling on President Shafik to resign if she cannot immediately bring order to this chaos," Johnson said at a press conference, at which he was booed and jeered by protesters.

Johnson also said he met briefly with Shafik, to encourage her to take "immediate action" to stamp out the protests. He told reporters he intends to meet with President Joe Biden because if Shafik can't end the protests, there is "executive authority that would be appropriate."

"If these threats and intimidation are not stopped, there is an appropriate time for the National Guard," Johnson said.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, however, earlier in the day said she does not plan to authorize the National Guard's involvement at Columbia.

To the students in the encampment, Johnson has this to say:

"Go back to class and stop the nonsense. If we want to have a debate on campus about the merits of these things, let's do that. But you can't intimidate your fellow students and make them stay home from class."

Columbia Requiring Remote Option for Final Exams

Students at Columbia's Morningside campus have the option to take their final course assessments — including exams, presentations, and projects — remotely, according to an April 24 update from the university.

"We know this is a challenging time on many fronts, but the safety and well-being of our students and community is paramount," Provost Angelina Olinto wrote in the announcement. "We are grateful for all of your efforts and understanding."

Classes that can't adapt to a remote final assessment should "provide other accommodations generously to students who have requested support for virtual assessment."

Pro-Palestine Protests Spread to College Campuses Across U.S.

Since Columbia students established their encampment on April 17, pro-Palestine protests have spread to college campuses across the country with demonstrators being arrested April 24 in Texas, California, and Massachusetts.

In Texas, state troopers in riot gear broke up a protest at the University of Texas at Austin that organizers, including university faculty, said was meant to be an educational event. The Texas Department of Public Safety, which said it was called in by the university and Gov. Greg Abbott, confirmed that 34 people had been arrested.

The University of Southern California declared its campus closed and asked the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to clear a pro-Palestine protest encampment in its Alumni Park. LAPD confirmed that 93 people were arrested for trespassing.

In Massachusetts, hundreds of students set up a protest encampment in Harvard Yard, the oldest part of the Ivy League university's campus, to protest not only the Israel-Hamas war, but also the university's suspension of a student group, the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in a statement Wednesday evening that University administrators "are closely monitoring the situation and are prioritizing the safety and security of the campus community."

Columbia Moves to Hybrid Classes Through the End of the Semester

Late April 22, Columbia announced that almost all courses would be hybrid through the end of the semester — May 10, according to Columbia's academic calendar.

The announcement said arts and practice-based programs would continue in-person with "generous accommodations."

"Safety is our highest priority as we strive to support our students’ learning and all the required academic operations," Olinto wrote in the announcement. "It’s vital that teaching and learning continue during this time."

Columbia Students Pass Divestment Referendum

The Columbia College Student Council announced Monday that the elections board overwhelmingly passed a referendum to divest financially from Israel, and largely cut ties with Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Over 2,000 students voted, with 76% voting to financially divest.

While the referendum acts as a consensus among students, it has no official influence over Columbia's financial investments or partnership with Tel Aviv University. However, this first referendum could push the University Senate to call a university-wide vote, according to the Columbia Spectator.

"Columbia University welcomes and embraces the Israeli students, faculty, and staff on our campus," a University spokesperson told Spectator. "We also benefit greatly from our dual degree program with Tel Aviv University."

Biden Condemns 'Antisemitic' Protests

As President Joe Biden left an Earth Day event in Virginia on April 22, reporters asked him whether he condemned the "antisemitic protests" on college campuses.

"I condemn the antisemitic protests," Biden told reporters. "That's why I've set up a program to deal with that. I also condemn those who don't understand what's going on with the Palestinians."

Biden referenced his program to combat antisemitism on campus, in which the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security help colleges track these incidents.

When reporters asked whether he thinks Shafik should resign, Biden said he didn't know and would need to learn more.

Columbia Cancels In-Person Classes

On April 22, during the sixth day of protests at Columbia and with the Jewish holiday of Passover approaching, Shafik announced that all classes would be held virtually. She suggested that off-campus students stay away, and faculty who can work remotely should do so.

"To de-escalate the rancor and give us all a chance to consider next steps, I am announcing that all classes will be held virtually on Monday," Shafik wrote in the statement.

Shafik said the university will continue to discuss resolutions with student protesters to "return to respectful engagement with each other."

"I understand that many are experiencing deep moral distress and want Columbia to help alleviate this by taking action. We should be having serious conversations about how Columbia can contribute," Shafik wrote.

"There will be many views across our diverse community about how best to do this and that is as it should be. But we cannot have one group dictate terms and attempt to disrupt important milestones like graduation to advance their point of view. Let's sit down and talk and argue and find ways to compromise on solutions."

Pro-Palestinian Protesters Stage Encampment

As Shafik was preparing to testify in front of Congress on April 17, student protesters were setting up what they call the "Gaza Solidarity Encampment" to protest Columbia's part in funding the Israel-Hamas War in Gaza, which has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to the Associated Press.

The Nation reported that the organizers — the Columbia University Apartheid Divest coalition (CUAD), Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) — said they will remain until Columbia divests "from companies and institutions that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine."

The organizers also demand transparency regarding Columbia's investments and pardons for students and faculty who have been disciplined or fired.

On the second day of the protest, Columbia began suspending students they identified as involved in the protest. Later that day, Shafik authorized a New York Police Department sweep of the encampment, which resulted in over 100 pro-Palestine protesters' arrests, according to the Columbia Spectrum, the institution's independent student newspaper.

GOP Leader Threatens to Withhold Federal Funding

During the antisemitism hearing on April 17, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., head of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, seemed satisfied with Shafik's responses to questions on how Columbia has handled antisemitic incidents.

Four days later, on April 21, Foxx changed her mind.

She sent a letter to Columbia University leaders, demanding that they crack down on the protests. By not suppressing the protests, she said, Columbia is in breach of Title VI, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, and puts their federal funding eligibility in jeopardy.

"Columbia’s continued failure to restore order and safety promptly to campus constitutes a major breach of the University's Title VI obligations, upon which federal financial assistance is contingent, and which must immediately be rectified," Foxx wrote in the letter.

"If you do not rectify this danger, then the committee will not hesitate in holding you accountable."

Columbia told Fox News in a statement that students have the right to protest, but they cannot disrupt campus life.

"Columbia students have the right to protest, but they are not allowed to disrupt campus life or harass and intimidate fellow students and members of our community," the school told Fox News. "We are acting on concerns we are hearing from our Jewish students and are providing additional support and resources to ensure that our community remains safe."

New York Republicans Call for Shafik's Resignation

Shafik seemed to walk away largely unscathed after her congressional hearing.

She told one GOP lawmaker that she spent “many hours” preparing, and another GOP lawmaker congratulated her on “saying the right things,” Politico reported.

However, the pro-Palestine protests that have expanded on the campus since her appearance have ignited new criticism of her leadership from Congressional leaders.

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik on April 22 released a statement calling for Shafik to step down.

Stefanik in the House hearing pressed Shafik on Columbia's response to faculty who made antisemitic statements, Politico reported. In her call for Shafik's resignation, Sefanik said Shafik had failed to protect Jewish students on campus.

“While Columbia's failed leadership spent hundreds of hours preparing for this week's Congressional hearing, it clearly was an attempt to cover up for their abject failure to enforce their own campus rules and protect Jewish students on campus," Stefanik said in the April 22 statement.

"Over the past few months and especially the last 24 hours, Columbia’s leadership has clearly lost control of its campus putting Jewish students' safety at risk. It is crystal clear that Columbia University — previously a beacon of academic excellence founded by Alexander Hamilton — needs new leadership.

"President Shafik must immediately resign. And the Columbia Board must appoint a president who will protect Jewish students and enforce school policies."

Following Stefanik's individual statement, 10 New York House Republicans called for Shafik's resignation in a letter issued April 22.

"It is time for Columbia University to turn the page on this shameful chapter," the letter addressed to Shafik states.

"This can only be done through the restoration of order and your prompt resignation. We … urge you to step down immediately so that someone who will take action against this mob can step up to meet the moment this crisis demands."