Columbia facing lose-lose decision as Gaza protest encampment deadline looms; Ilhan Omar on campus

NEW YORK — As a deadline for Columbia University administrators and protesters to iron out a deal to clear a Gaza encampment edges closer, university officials are facing a lose-lose decision if students continue to flout school rules: Call in the NYPD for a second time or allow a situation they have said cannot continue to continue.

Columbia officials have faced criticism by students, faculty and civil rights groups for calling in the police last week to deal with campus unrest, and increasing violence at other college campuses is no doubt sparking concern.

On the other side, Columbia president Minouche Shafik is under fire by Jewish students and an array of public officials for failing to protect students from anti-Semitism and abuse in and around the upper Manhattan campus. House Speaker Mike Johnson Wednesday visited campus and called on Shafik to resign.

Thursday, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn), whose daughter Isra Hirsi was among the Columbia students arrested and suspended last week, visited the campus lawn, according to students’ social media posts from inside the closed-off encampment.

Columbia says it is making progress in talks with the protesters, who are demanding the university divest from investments tied to Israel. According to the administration, students have committed to removing a number of their tents and promised that protesters not enrolled at the school will leave.

But negotiations, which started last Friday, continue on unstable ground.

Student negotiators meet twice daily with members of the administration, according to student news site BWOG. The campus outlet reported the university has tried to offer an alternative space for the encampment, because they need the current lawn to set up for graduation on May 15.

Students briefly pulled out of talks when administrators raised the prospect of clearing out the encampment again — a threat that, for now, is on hold.

“This is a win for us,” said Khymani James, a representative the encampment. “Our negotiation team has committed not to participate in a bargaining process so long as the university attempts to extract concessions by police or military force.”

Still, James added, James, “there is no guarantee of NYPD not being involved after 48 hour deadline.”

The NYPD has said it is prepared to clear the campus if asked — but want a clearer plan for what comes next. After the police arrested more than 100 protesters last week, students returned to campus shortly after and reestablished the encampment.

The student protests continued much as usual on Thursday, the one-week mark since NYPD arrested more than 100 protesters — with dozens of tents still camped out on the lawn. An adjunct theater professor posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that students had designated a nut-free zone for their classmates with allergies.

“I very much hope these discussions are successful,” University President Minouche Shafik said in a statement Tuesday night. “If they are not, we will have to consider alternative options for clearing the West Lawn and restoring calm to campus so that students can complete the term and graduate.”

After university officials announced they were making “important progress” with representatives for the encampment, they extended the cutoff for conversations by 48 hours, which will culminate overnight. While the exact time of the expiration is unclear, the extension of Tuesday’s deadline as announced in the early morning hours Wednesday, outting the end of the 48 hours sometime between midnight Thursday and 8 am Friday.

Shafik, in the memo, said she is “deeply sensitive” to the fact that this year’s graduating class spent their first year of Columbia online during the pandemic.

“It is essential that we move forward with a plan to dismantle it,” Shafik wrote. She recognized free speech and that many protesters have gathered peaceful, but said the encampment still raises safety concerns, disrupts campus and creates a tense environment.

University officials denied they would request the National Guard, an idea that’s been put forward by Republican lawmakers including U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, who visited campus Thursday.

“Let me be clear,” Columbia spokesman Ben Chang briefed media after Johnson’s visit. “That is untrue and an unsubstantiated claim.”

“Our goal is to restore order,” he continued, “and if we can get there through dialogue, we will.”

Hundreds of faculty members, many clad in university regalia, walked out of online classes Monday to condemn Columbia administrators for using the NYPD to arrest students engaged in “peaceful protests,” according to a campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors declaration handed out at the demonstration.

The chapter on Thursday released a statement condemning “any interference by members of Congress in Columbia’s governance.”

“These political assaults on higher education are an affront to academic values, and they endanger the entire university community,” it continued.

Students at Columbia were the first to erect an encampment mid-last week, calling on the university to divest from Israel and reverse student and faculty discipline related to antiwar protests. Since then, tent demonstrations have popped up across the country and abroad at American universities’ satellite campuses, such as in Paris and Berlin.

In Atlanta, Emory University officials on Thursday called in police to clear an encampment, using tear gas and rubber bullets to respond to the student protesters, according to the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and memo from the university president.


(With Sheetal Banchariya.)