Columbia Students Occupy Building as Campus Protests Spread

(Bloomberg) -- US colleges from Columbia to UCLA are rushing to confront pro-Palestinian demonstrations, with disciplinary actions escalating and campus life thrown into turmoil as the academic year comes to a close.

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At Columbia in New York, dozens of students entered a campus building known as Hamilton Hall after midnight Tuesday and barricaded themselves inside, piling tables and chairs to block doors and covering security cameras, the university’s student newspaper reported.

The university’s public service safety department said early Tuesday that employees and students should avoid coming to the Morningside campus and that access to some areas may be restricted. A student group that claimed responsibility for occupying the building said in a post on X that it plans to remain there until the university yields to demands to divest its Israeli holdings.

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Early Tuesday, police at Yale University began clearing an encampment and threatening to arrest protesters, according to the Yale Daily News student newspaper, which said parts of the campus have been closed to the public.

Tensions are running high at a number of universities, particularly as some administrators started to take steps to disperse or contain the burgeoning protests.

Columbia began suspending students who refused to leave a pro-Palestinian encampment. A spokesperson for the university, Ben Chang, said before the Hamilton Hall takeover that talks with demonstrators who remained on the campus lawn were continuing. The university had set a 2 p.m. Monday deadline for the dismantling of the encampment to make way for the May 15 graduation ceremonies.

The New York Police Department is on standby near Columbia’s campus, with officers ready to respond if called upon by university officials. The school has been taking a more hands-off approach to avoid a repeat of an incident last week when Columbia President Minouche Shafik called NYPD officers to campus.

That decision 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.

On Monday, protesters at the University of Texas campus in Austin witnessed a forceful response from local law enforcement and state police, some in riot gear. They moved to disperse protesters following threats of arrest for trespassing and disorderly conduct. The tense scenes, captured on social media, showed officers scuffling with protesters, removing makeshift barricades and using pepper spray.

Read More: Columbia Begins Suspending Student Protesters Who Won’t Leave

At UCLA, the situation appeared relatively calmer as a group of students and faculty participated in a walkout, calling for the university to sever financial ties with Israel and companies that support the US military’s involvement in the region. Security officials held back from intervening, a contrast to the weekend’s events when campus officers stepped in to separate clashing groups of demonstrators.

Meanwhile, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, reached an agreement with protesters to clear an encampment, avoiding the confrontations seen at other institutions.

Northwestern President Michael Schill announced the deal in a campus-wide email, which 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.

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The agreement restricts protest participation to students and university staff and includes the school’s commitment to fund two visiting Palestinian faculty members annually and provide scholarships for five Palestinian undergraduates throughout their academic years. Additionally, the university will provide and renovate a community building for Middle Eastern, North African and Muslim students.

“This agreement was forged by the hard work of students and faculty working closely with members of the administration to help ensure that the violence and escalation we have seen elsewhere does not happen here at Northwestern,” Schill said.

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.”

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“The students have not responded, and they have remained at the site,” according to the statement. “Accordingly and regrettably, NYU is moving forward with disciplinary processes.”

University administrations are striving to restore order before the commencement season begins in the coming weeks, aiming to avoid a similar situation from 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.

--With assistance from Joe Carroll, Laura Nahmias, Aradhana Aravindan and Bill Faries.

(Updates with Yale University clearing out protesters in fourth paragraph)

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