Columbia Begins Suspending Student Protesters Who Won’t Leave

(Bloomberg) -- Columbia University said it has started to suspend students who defied a 2 p.m. deadline to clear out of its West Lawn, ratcheting up tensions over a pro-Palestinian encampment established more than a week ago.

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On April 18, Columbia had called in the police to clear protesters for trespassing on its grounds, but that move made students dig in and re-establish their encampment. It also inspired similar sit-ins and demonstrations at other schools across the US, including Harvard University, Yale University and the University of Southern California.

The New York school is now seeking to clear the latest encampment ahead of commencement, scheduled for May 15. As of 5:15 p.m. on Monday, tents on the Columbia lawn were still pitched and the demonstrators, who the university says are violating multiple policies, hadn’t moved to disperse.

Suspensions have begun while university officials are continuing talks with the protesters, Ben Chang, a spokesman for Columbia, said in a press briefing Monday evening. He didn’t provide information about whether the school is taking steps to clear the lawn.

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“We will not be moved except by force,” said Sueda Polat, a graduate student and one of the leaders of the protest.

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At the University of Texas campus in Austin, state and local police decked out in riot gear moved to disperse protesters on campus after school officials threatened them with arrest for trespassing and disorderly conduct. Televised images on CNN showed police scuffling with protesters and dismantling make-shift barricades fashioned from folding tables.

Universities across the US have seen ongoing protests since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and prompted the nation’s retaliatory bombardment in Gaza. The Hamas-run health ministry in the coastal enclave estimates that more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s campaign.

The group leading the demonstration at Columbia — known as the Columbia University Apartheid Divest coalition — has been protesting the school’s ties to Israel and demanding it cut financial links to the country. Some of the demonstrators have been criticized for antisemitic rhetoric and for intimidating some Jewish students on campus.

“I have no problem with protests,” said Mikael Rochman, an Israeli student who is a junior and part of a dual degree program with Tel Aviv University. “But when it crosses the line into hate speech and calling for the destruction of an entire nation of people on campus, and threats and violence, then it has crossed a line.”

Columbia President Minouche Shafik should have put an end to the protests much earlier, Rochman said.

On Monday, an unidentified Jewish student sued Columbia claiming it has failed to provide a safe learning environment while extremists among the demonstrators are “openly inciting violence against Jewish students.”

The plaintiff, a second-year student identified as “C.S.,” is seeking to represent all current students who were forced to switch to online learning in recent days. She claims Columbia has breached its contract with the students and is seeking an order forcing the school to provide safe access to campus facilities to allow her and other students to complete the semester in person.

“We must restore order to the campus so that all students can complete their work for the term, study for exams, and feel welcome in the community,” Columbia said earlier on Monday in a letter to the demonstrators.

The university said that students who notify the school of their departure from the encampment and “commit to abide by all university policies” through June 2025 or the conferral of their degree will be “eligible to complete the semester in good standing.”

Suspended students will be restricted from school property, will be unable to complete the semester and will be ineligible to graduate, according to the letter.

“Of course students are worried about the impact on their academic honors,” said Polat, the protest leader. “But they also believe that their right to an education is not more of a priority than the right to an education of people in Gaza.”

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Earlier, Shafik issued a statement saying the school wouldn’t divest from Israel and that administrators failed to reach an agreement with the protesters.

University administrators and lawmakers have for decades rejected the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel. They view it as antisemitic because it calls into question the legitimacy of Jewish state and singles out the policies of one nation.

Shafik on Monday said the school offered to publish a process for students to gain more insight into Columbia’s holdings and to make investments in health and education in Gaza.

She has faced demands for her resignation for her handling of the protests — by some for being too hard on the students, and by others for being too soft. But Columbia’s board of trustees has supported Shafik and her approach to managing the diversity of voices on campus, saying it aligns with the promise she made during her appointment process.

--With assistance from Dayana Mustak, Max Zimmerman, Joe Carroll and Bob Van Voris.

(Recasts with start of suspensions and student lawsuit in the 11th paragraph.)

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