Columbia Threatens to Expel Students Who Took Over Building

(Bloomberg) -- At Columbia, student demonstrators who have barricaded themselves in a campus building are facing expulsion. At Yale, the police were called in to clear an encampment that protesters are vowing to reoccupy.

Most Read from Bloomberg

The unfolding events at the two campuses represent the tough decisions leaders at elite American universities are being forced to make, as they grapple with how to respond to increasingly confrontational pro-Palestinian protesters.

Fueled by the viral power of social media, the ongoing demonstrations at US colleges are sparking recriminations and drawing in everyone from students to faculty and billionaire donors to politicians. They have also intensified debate over how universities respond to antisemitism versus other forms of discrimination, and allow for free speech while keeping students safe.

The latest dramatic turn in the protests came just after midnight Tuesday in New York, when students broke through doors to enter the Hamilton Hall building at Columbia and shut themselves inside.

They piled tables and chairs to block doors, and covered security cameras. They also unfurled banners from the windows that read “Student Intifada,” a reference to armed Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation, and “Hind’s Hall,” a reference to a child killed in Gaza.

Hamilton Hall was also the site of student takeovers in 1968, during the Vietnam War, and demonstrations demanding divestment from South Africa in 1985.

At mid-morning on Tuesday, about half a dozen students were camped out in front of a corner of Hamilton Hall, with many still asleep and others refusing to speak to the media. A separate group of students with face masks, keffiyehs and blankets were at another barred entrance to the building. They were discussing the feasibility of divestment from Israel while drinking Dunkin’ coffee.

Later, students demanded that no photos be taken of them while they tried to rig up a rope to hoist supplies inside the building.

“Students occupying the building face expulsion,” said Ben Chang, a university spokesperson.

“Protesters have chosen to escalate to an untenable situation — vandalizing property, breaking doors and windows, and blockading entrances,” he said in a statement.

At Yale, campus police blocked access to an encampment while workers took down tents. No arrests were made, but protesters have said they will be back, the Yale Daily News reported.

Never miss an episode. Follow the Big Take podcast on iHeart, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. Read the transcript.

The students occupying the Columbia building are demanding the same thing as protesters in an encampment on its West Lawn: more disclosure about the school’s investments, a cut in its financial and academic ties to Israel, and amnesty from the university for protesters.

It’s part of a campaign that aims to isolate and put pressure on the Jewish state to stop its bombing campaign in Gaza, where more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed over the past six months. Israel is targeting the seaside enclave after Hamas — designated a terrorist organization by the US government — attacked the country on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking over 200 hostages.

“Taking back our own campus is the only and last response to an institution that obeys neither its own ‘rules’ nor ethical mandates,” a coalition of student groups protesting at Columbia said in a statement. “Taking over a building is a small risk compared to the daily resistance of Palestinians in Gaza.”

While the protests on US campuses are being driven by the war in Gaza, their impact is transcending the conflict. Some of the demonstrations have featured antisemitic and intimidating chants and posters. Jewish students say they’ve been spat on and harassed. Protest organizers say those incidents don’t reflect their views or goals.

But critics point to Khymani James, who filmed himself making inflammatory comments — including “Zionists don’t deserve to live” — during a university disciplinary hearing a few months ago. He was among leaders of the latest protests at Columbia, and the school suspended him in recent days after his incendiary views went viral on social media.

Columbia University Apartheid Divest, the student-protest coalition, said in a post on Instagram that James’s views don’t reflect the group’s values or the encampment’s community agreements.

The occupation of Hamilton Hall will “hopefully create more power and leverage in their negotiations with the administration,” said Lisa Fithian, a 63-year-old activist who joined the students on campus last night to advise them on safe protest practices. She said she was called to campus by protesters in the encampment, and not compensated for the training.

Politicians are also weighing in. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson visited Columbia last week, condemning the “virulent antisemitism on America’s college campuses” and telling student protesters that they should “stop wasting your parents’ money.”

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that “the president believes that forcibly taking over a building on campus is absolutely the wrong approach. That is not an example of peaceful protest.”

“President Biden has stood against repugnant, antisemitic smears and violent rhetoric his entire life,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said. “He condemns the use of the term ‘intifada,’ as he has the other tragic and dangerous hate speech displayed in recent days.”

Earlier, progressive Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had criticized the school’s decision to bring in the police on April 18 to clear out protesters, calling the move a “failure of leadership.” Her fellow Democrat Ilhan Omar, whose daughter was one of the students arrested in the police response at Columbia, has praised the demonstrators but also drew backlash after she suggested that some Jewish students were “pro-genocide.”

Columbia — which began suspending students on Monday who defied an order to clear their encampment — said early Tuesday that employees and students should avoid coming to the Morningside Heights campus and that access to some areas may be restricted. The New York Police Department is on standby near campus, with officers ready to respond if called upon by university officials.

University President Minouche Shafik’s decision earlier in April to call in the police led to the arrest of more than 100 protesters, drawing fierce backlash from students and faculty, while sparking a domino effect of pro-Palestinian demonstrations at campuses across the nation.

Schools are striving to restore order before the commencement season begins in the coming weeks, aiming to avoid a similar situation to what occurred at the University of Southern California. Protests at the Los Angeles-based school led to the cancellation of the scheduled main graduation ceremony and the arrest of over 90 students last week.

Meanwhile, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, reached an agreement with protesters to clear an encampment, avoiding the confrontations seen at other institutions. The deal stipulates the immediate removal of tents and sound systems and adherence to university policies by protesters. In exchange, the university has permitted demonstrations to continue on the campus meadow until June 1.

Still, a deal like the one at Northwestern remains rare. New York University issued a statement saying efforts to de-escalate a campus protest through dialog has faltered, forcing the school to resort to “conduct charges.”

--With assistance from Karen Breslau, Maxwell Adler, Akayla Gardner and Jordan Fabian.

(Recasts to add comments from a Columbia university spokesperson about student expulsions.)

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.