Columbia University president faces vote of confidence as protests spread

Columbia University president faces vote of confidence as protests spread
Columbia University president faces vote of confidence as protests spread

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - A New York City Police Department officer looks on as People take part in a demonstration in support of Israel outside the Columbia University campus as student protest encampment in support of Palestinians continues, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York April 26, 2024. — Reuters pic

NEW YORK, April 27 — Columbia’s embattled president came under renewed pressure yesterday as a university oversight committee met to address her attempt two weeks ago to clamp down on protests that have roiled the Ivy League school and spread across the country and aboard.

President Nemat Minouche Shafik faced an outcry from many students, faculty and outside observers for summoning New York police to campus on April 18 to dismantle an encampment of tents set up by protesters against Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

Police arrested more than 100 people that day and removed the tents from the main lawn of the school’s Manhattan campus, but the protesters quickly returned and set up the encampment again, narrowing Columbia’s options on shutting down the protest.

Since then hundreds of protesters have been arrested at schools from California to Boston as students set up encampments similar to the one at Columbia, demanding that their schools divest from companies involved in Israel’s military.


Like-minded protests against Israel’s actions have spread overseas, as well, with tensions flaring in front of Paris’ prestigious Sciences Po university yesterday as pro-Israeli protesters came to challenge pro-Palestinian students occupying the building. Police had to move in to keep the two sides apart.

At Columbia, the university senate will hold a hearing on Friday afternoon to vote on a resolution about the president’s actions that could range from an expression of displeasure to an outright censure.

The White House has defended free speech on campus, but Democratic President Joe Biden denounced “antisemitic protests” this week and stressed that campuses must be safe.


Some Republicans in Congress have accused Shafik and other university administrators of being too soft on protesters and allowing Jewish students to be harassed on their campuses.

After failing to squelch the protests two weeks ago, Columbia administrators have turned to negotiating with students, so far without success. The school has set two deadlines for an agreement this week — the latest at 4 am on Friday — both of which came and went without a deal being struck.

“The talks have shown progress and are continuing as planned,” Shafik’s office wrote in a brief email to the university community late on Thursday night. “We have our demands; they have theirs. A formal process is under way and continues.”

Texas clash

The president of the University of Texas at Austin, Jay Hartzell, faced a similar backlash from faculty yesterday, two days after he joined with Republican Governor Greg Abbott in calling in police to break up a pro-Palestinian protest.

Dozens of protesters were arrested but charges against most were dropped the next day.

Nearly 200 members of the faculty at the university signed a letter dated April 25, saying they have no confidence in Hartzell after he “needlessly put students, staff and faculty in danger” when hundreds of officers clad in riot gear and on horseback swept away the protests.

Hartzell in a statement said he made the decision on grounds that protest organisers aimed to “severely disrupt” the campus for a long period.

The clash in Texas was one of many that broke out this week between demonstrators and police summoned by university leaders, who say encampments constitute unauthorised protests, jeopardise the safety of students, and at times, subject Jewish students to antisemitism and harassment.

Civil rights groups have condemned the arrests and urged authorities to respect free speech rights. The activists behind the protests say their aim is to pressure schools to divest from companies that contribute to Israeli military actions in Gaza, and blame any hostile behaviour on outsiders seeking to hijack the movement.

While Columbia remains the epicentre of the student protest movement, the national spotlight has shifted to new campuses — from the University of Southern California (USC) to Atlanta’s Emory University to Boston’s Emerson College — nearly every day this week. USC this week canceled its main May 10 graduation ceremony, saying newly required security measures would have placed excessive delays on crowd control.

Yesterday, about 200 protesters gathered at George Washington University, a few blocks from the White House, carrying “Free Palestine” posters, wearing black and white Palestinian keffiyehs and chanting slogans.

“We will pursue disciplinary actions against the GW students involved in these unauthorised demonstrations that continue to disrupt university operations,” the university said.

Authorities also began making arrests at a protest encampment at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, on Friday.

A livestream by the organiser showed dozens of demonstrators setting up tents on lawns on campus. Police moved in within half an hour, telling protesters they could not camp there but could stay if they didn’t have tents

California’s Cal Poly Humboldt, a public university in Arcata, said it had shut down its campus through the weekend and moved all classes online, as protesters continued a weeklong occupation of a school building. — Reuters

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