Tensions rise at Columbia after deadline to clear encampment

NEW YORK — Tensions rose on the Columbia University campus Monday as pro-Palestinian protesters refused to comply with a deadline to leave their encampment. 

The students were warned they would be suspended if they didn’t pack up the nearly two-week-old encampment on the main lawn of the campus in Upper Manhattan by 2 p.m. 

Columbia officials also said the student protesters needed to identify themselves and pledge to follow university policies through next school year in order to finish the semester in good standing, according to a letter they received.

After the deadline passed, hundreds of pro-Palestinian students picketed through the quad in protest.

“This is not a matter of simply violating university rules. This is a movement, an anti-war movement. We have sparked similar Gaza solidarity encampments across the nation and even across the globe,” said Mahmoud Khalil, a Columbia student. 

Columbia’s talks with protesters broke down

Students marched around campus saying they would not rest unless the university agrees to divest from Israel, which Columbia leaders refused to do before their negotiations with the protesters broke down. 

“Since Wednesday, a small group of academic leaders has been in constructive dialogue with student organizers to find a path that would result in the dismantling of the encampment and adherence to University policies going forward. Regretfully, we were not able to come to an agreement,” Columbia University President Dr. Minouche Shafik wrote in a new statement Monday. 

Shafik added both sides “worked in good faith to reach common ground,” and “we thank them all for their diligent work, long hours, and careful effort and wish they had reached a different outcome.”

“This is a smokescreen. Bureaucracy is a prison and the students refuse to trade in the blood of Palestinians,” said Sueda Polat, a student. 

Pro-Palestinian faculty locked arms in front of the encampment hours after the university sent students the letter about the deadline to leave. 

“An alternate venue for demonstrations”

“The University will offer an alternative venue for demonstrations after the exam period and commencement have concluded. If the encampment is not removed, we will need to initiate disciplinary procedures,” it said in part. 

“We urge those in the encampment to voluntarily disperse. We are consulting with a broader group in our community to explore alternative internal options to end this crisis as soon as possible,” Shafik wrote.

Monday was the last day of classes on campus at Columbia. Students will spend the rest of the week studying for final exams, which start Friday. The university previously announced exams must include a remote option for those who requested support.    

Columbia’s graduation will go as planned on May 15, Shafik said before the deadline in order to clear the encampment, which is right next to the commencement site. 

Over the weekend, Columbia officials said there was no truth behind claims of an impending lockdown or evictions, and New York City Mayor Eric Adams reiterated the NYPD will only respond if the school calls police.  

Columbia will not divest from Israel

Pro-Palestinian protesters have been calling on Columbia to divest from companies doing business with Israel.

In her statement, Shafik wrote Columbia will not divest, but offered to “develop an expedited timeline” for its Advisory Committee for Socially Responsible Investing to review students’ divestment proposals. Shafik also offered to share information about how to access a list of the school’s direct investment holdings, with more frequent updates. 

“Additionally, the University offered to convene a faculty committee to address academic freedom and to begin a discussion on access and financial barriers to academic programs and global centers. The University also offered to make investments in health and education in Gaza, including supporting early childhood development and support for displaced scholars,” Shafik’s statement continued. “There are important ideas that emerged from this dialogue, and we plan to explore pursuing them in the future.”

Jewish students sue Columbia

Jewish students filed a class-action lawsuit against Columbia on Monday, alleging it has failed to keep them safe and is in violation of the Civil Rights Act. They argue the university needs to ban students and “outside agitators” who incite violence. 

In a separate letter to the community, Shafik acknowledged the encampment made Jewish and pro-Israel students feel unsafe. 

“Growing up in Israel, a big recurring theme was never again, and I don’t think Jews should be intimidated,” one student said. 

“It crossed the line from protest into hate speech very early and people were being assaulted and spit on and at that point they should have already taken action,” another student said. 

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams spoke with students on both sides of the protest Monday. 

“Make sure that folks’ rights are not being treaded on, and particularly the type of force that I’ve seen before and not what the response is,” said Williams. 

Earlier, 21 Congressional Democrats, including New York Rep. Dan Goldman and New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, wrote to Columbia’s Board of Trustees, saying in part, “The time for negotiation is over. The time for action is now.” 

“I’m hoping that Columbia University trustees take action immediately, without delay,” said Gottheimer. 

The letter called the encampment “a breeding ground for antisemitism.” 

Encampment set up at Rutgers University

Students at Rutgers University set up an encampment at the New Brunswick campus on Monday after first holding a rally and then marching to the location.

They’re trying to get the attention of the university’s Board of Governors and the Joint Committee on Investments after they felt their request for the school to divest from Israel was ignored at a meeting on Thursday.

Earlier this month, more than 6,000 students voted in favor of a referendum calling on university administrators to withdraw investments in Israel and cancel the school’s partnership with Tel Aviv University. More than 1,500 voted against the idea.

There are 44,000 students enrolled in New Brunswick. Those who spoke to CBS New York at Monday’s rally declined to go on camera.

“I’m here to support our students, all of them, and to see what our students are going with, what they feel passionate about, and also, I believe in the cause, the idea of divesting being an important part to move our university toward a more moral position,” said Kaiser Aslam, Muslim chaplain of the Rutgers Center for Islamic Life.

“I am Jewish and in terms of antisemitism at these rallies, I have never felt as safe anywhere as I do at these rallies. I have never felt as embraced as I do at these rallies,” said Ellen Rosner, a local resident. 

Rutgers says the request is under review and that the school’s president, who has no direct role in the investment process, has made clear his personal opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and his support for the relationship with Tel Aviv University.

On Monday’s rally he said, in part, “Our students want to make a difference in a struggle that has cost far too many innocent lives and that threatens so many more. I respect their right to protest in ways that do not interfere with university operations or with the ability of their fellow students to learn.”

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