Colleges grasp for solutions to pro-Palestinian student protests

Colleges are trying everything from negotiation to mass arrests to deal with the crop of pro-Palestinian demonstrations that have sprung up on their grounds, but experts say they have to take a good look at campus culture if they really want to deal with the situation in the long term.

Elite schools starting with Columbia University have fallen into chaos as opponents of Israel’s handling of its war against Hamas and its treatment of the Palestinian people in general set up encampments on campuses across the nation over the last week. On Wednesday, the University of Texas at Austin became the latest to get law enforcement involved when a class walkout and campus demonstration saw multiple people detained.

Education advocates say schools need to be open to conversation with their students but firm on their rules.

“Campus protests are a sacred tradition in the United States for free expression and for students to get involved civically, so it’s really important for administrators to respect that when they are proceeding,” said Roni Brunn, a leading member of the Harvard Jewish Alumni Association. “At the same time, universities do have codes of conduct, and the process needs to happen within the parameters of the codes of conduct.”

Columbia originally told protesters they had until midnight Tuesday to disperse before the school would have to take extraordinary measures to remove them, a warning that came after more than 100 were arrested last week.

After the demonstrators agreed to conditions such as taking down some of their tents, ensuring only those affiliated with the school were protesting and avoiding the use of discriminatory language, Columbia extended the deadline for getting rid of the encampment by 48 hours.

“In light of this constructive dialogue, the University will continue conversations for the next 48 hours,” the school said.

Officials and outside observers said they believe much of the unrest — including reports of antisemitic behavior and language — is coming from people who are not associated with the school.

“This last week, some of the worst rhetoric is not from students. It’s from nonstudents who were outside the gate,” said Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, which is heading up the Faculty Against Antisemitism Movement campaign.

“We can’t have outside agitators come in and be disruptive,” New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) said Tuesday, adding, “We need to address this while it’s a spark. Let’s not wait until it’s a blaze.”

The protests began at Columbia last Wednesday, the same day university President Minouche Shafik and other school officials went before the House Education and the Workforce Committee for a hearing about antisemitism on college campuses.

The protesters have created what they call “Gaza Solidarity Encampments,” leading to the arrests of dozens of individuals who authorities say did not have permission to be in the area.

This week, Columbia decided to make classes hybrid for the reset of the semester due to the unrest, drawing bipartisan condemnation and calls for Shafik’s resignation.

GOP lawmakers have demanded the Biden administration “restore order” to college campuses, with some suggesting bringing in the military.

While Columbia’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter says the school did threaten to bring in the National Guard, a university spokesperson said “deploying the National Guard was never on the table.”

Meanwhile, the demonstrations have spread, with students marching or forming encampments at schools including New York University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

“It’s happening in certain places like New York City and Boston, and I heard an uptick in it in the Bay Area, and I think there’s a reason for that is because there are off-campus agitators and organizations in those cities that do not have the best interest of the universities at heart. They are calling for students to seize the campuses. They are coming onto campus,” Elman, an alumna of Columbia, said.

She argues certain schools need to “close the gate so no one can come in without an ID, so at least you’re [only] interacting with those who are affiliates of the campus.”

But in Cambridge, Mass., Brunn pointed out that Harvard Yard has been closed to nonaffiliates and signs have been posted warning of consequences for using tents there, and protesters on Wednesday are advancing plans to begin an encampment regardless.

“Immediately, universities need to be clear if you do this, this is your — this is your reprimand, and they need to be more forceful as far as revoking organizations’ affiliation with the university,” Brunn said. “Because there needs to be a sliding scale of consequence too that is commensurate with the activity, so you can’t be like on a double, triple probation if you do something that really shutters the university campus for students. It needs to be proportionate.”

While schools are desperate in an immediate sense to get out of the spotlight, education experts say they also need to take steps now to avoid similar situations in the future.

Shaun Harper, a professor of education, business, and public policy at the University of Southern California, says there are three steps schools need to consider in navigating these situations.

In the shorter-term, Harper says a “grand coalition” needs to be made “within the next week” that includes college presidents, vice presidents, deans of students and religious leaders on campuses to work together and bring more understanding to their institutions.

Colleges such as Columbia also need to recognize that both Jewish and Muslim students do not feel currently safe at their institutions, Harper said.

“While on the one hand, I can certainly understand and appreciate that Jewish students are making sure that we know that they feel unsafe, and that they’re experiencing high levels of antisemitism. Muslim students are also experiencing high levels of Islamophobia, and they don’t feel safe either,” Harper said.

The third recommendation Harper presented was getting Jewish and pro-Palestinian organizations together to lay out recommendations on how institutions can handle these events and dialogue on the issue.

The key, Harper emphasized, is starting with those in charge before trying to get the students together.

During Columbia’s hearing, Republican lawmakers zoomed in on professors who have celebrated the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, demanding disciplinary actions for faculty who are antisemitic.

Elman argues if harsh measures aren’t taken against faculty who break the rules, it leads to a culture where students feel they can take up the same actions.

“Faculty is not modeling appropriate dialogue on tough contentious questions like the Israel-Gaza war,” Elman said. “The faculty, with the support from the administration, should show students how you engage those tough questions without intimidation, harassment, antagonizing others.”

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.