Calls grow for Columbia University president to step down as protests spread nationwide

"We're making important progress with representatives of the student encampment"

ByRamishah Maruf, Elizabeth Wolfe, Melissa Alonso and John Towfighi, CNN
Wednesday, April 24, 2024
Protests erupt on US campuses across the country
Protests have broken out at colleges and universities across the country in connection with the war in Gaza.

NEW YORK -- National political leaders ratcheted up the pressure for Columbia University President Minouche Shafik to step down on Wednesday as pro-Palestinian campus protests continued at the school's New York campus and spread to colleges across the country.

At the University of Texas at Austin, state troopers in riot gear, including some on horseback, began breaking up a group of protesters shortly after a demonstration began on Wednesday.

The Palestine Solidarity Committee in Austin organized a walkout and occupation on the school's south lawn. According to an Instagram post announcing the event, students were encouraged to bring "blankets, food and water, face masks, and lots of energy."

Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, meanwhile, visited Columbia University's campus to call for Shafik's resignation during a tense press conference on Wednesday afternoon where the crowd repeatedly interrupted the speaker and at times loudly booed him and other GOP lawmakers who were with him as they stood at the mics.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) speaks to the media on the Lower Library steps on Columbia University
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) speaks to the media on the Lower Library steps on Columbia University's campus in New York on Wednesday April 24, 2024.
AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah

"I am here today joining my colleagues, and calling on President Shafik to resign if she could not immediately bring order to this chaos," Johnson said

Columbia campus protests continue

Columbia notified students and faculty Wednesday morning that the hybrid model for classes, meant to ensure student safety, will extend to final exams.

Provost Angela Olinto said in an email that all final course assessments, including exams, presentations and projects, "must include a remote option for students who have requested support for virtual assessment." The move was made "in order to address the concerns of our members in an evolving campus environment," Olinto wrote.

The university earlier in the day said it has extended negotiations with student activists over the dismantling of their pro-Palestinian encampment that has highlighted schools' divestment practices and prompted solidarity protests at colleges across the country.

That statement came early Wednesday morning - just hours after Columbia's president announced it had given protesters a midnight deadline to reach an agreement or the university would consider "alternative options" to clear the encampment. The talks will now be extended another 48 hours after "important progress" was made, the spokesperson said.

Protesters have said they won't disperse until the university agrees to cut ties with Israeli academic institutions and commits to a "complete divestment" of Columbia's funds from entities connected to Israel, among other demands. But the editor-in-chief of Columbia's student newspaper told CNN the negotiating parties seem to be struggling to find a middle ground.

"There seems to be very little room in terms of where the university wants to meet the students and the students want to meet with the university," Isabella Ramirez, editor-in-chief of the Columbia Spectator, said Tuesday night. "It doesn't seem that there's much room in terms of compromise."

Student organizers released a statement shortly after midnight, saying their representatives left the negotiations Tuesday after the university threatened to call in police and the National Guard if protesters "do not acquiesce to their demands."

Susan Ellingwood, associate vice president of public affairs at Columbia told CNN: "Deploying the National Guard was never on the table."

House Speaker Mike Johnson also said on Wednesday that he will call on Columbia President Shafik to resign when he is set to join Jewish students on campus, followed by a press conference.

While on campus Wednesday, Johnson will have a meal with Jewish students before the event. He will be joined by New York Reps. Mike Lawler, Nicole Malliotakis and others in the New York GOP delegation. "We're relying on and calling upon and demanding these university officials to control of the situation which is just completely out of control right now," Johnson said.

The university's commencement ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday, May 15. Currently, the student protestors on the West Lawn are camping in a space that is utilized during commencement.

Tensions escalate

Tensions have escalated at many US universities since the October 7 terror attack on Israel by Hamas, which killed about 1,200 people and took others hostage, and Israel's subsequent war on Hamas in Gaza, which has since killed tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians, according to the enclave's health ministry.

As the protests stretch into their eighth day, President Shafik has faced criticism from donors and lawmakers who believe police should be brought in to clear the encampment and restore order on campus - even as students and faculty condemn the president's similar decision last week to ask the New York Police Department to clear another student encampment.

More than 80 tents packed the lawn prior to the deadline late Tuesday night as hundreds of people buzzed in and around the encampment. The university said student protesters had "committed to dismantling and removing a significant number of tents" and agreed that people not affiliated with the university will leave the encampment.

Student activists "have taken steps to make the encampment welcome to all and have prohibited discriminatory or harassing language," the university said.

Days of unrest on campus, as well as gatherings of non-student protesters outside the university's gates, have led to safety concerns among Jewish students and prompted Columbia to move to mostly hybrid classes on its main campus for the rest of the semester.

"I fully support the importance of free speech, respect the right to demonstrate, and recognize that many of the protestors have gathered peacefully," Shafik said in a release late Tuesday evening. "However, the encampment raises serious safety concerns, disrupts campus life, and has created a tense and at times hostile environment for many members of our community."

Tensions are high, especially as Jewish students, faculty and staff celebrate the Passover holiday. Elected officials from the mayor of New York through President Joe Biden have commented, with leaders of the House of Representatives issuing statements on both sides of the aisle.

House Speaker Mike Johnson said he planned to visit Jewish students at Columbia on Wednesday and hold a news conference "regarding the troubling rise of virulent antisemitism on America's college campuses," according to his office.

Other schools join in solidarity

Students across the United States have been protesting in support of Palestinians in Gaza and in solidarity with students who were suspended at Columbia this past week.

As the national spotlight has fallen on Columbia, similar encampments are growing at other schools, and officials nationwide are grappling with a response to what has become a coast-to-coast disruption.

Pro-Palestinian encampments have been set up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Emerson College, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan.

Arrests have been made at other campuses across the US as well. More than 100 students from Columbia University and Barnard College were arrested last Thursday. Barnard President Lisa Rosenbury confirmed in a statement Monday that students on interim suspension "no longer have access to most Barnard buildings."

More 130 people were arrested at New York University at a pro-Palestinian protest Monday night. NYU said it asked for help from the NYPD after school officials said there were "intimidating chants and several antisemitic incidents" during a protest. That led to scenes of a chaotic confrontation between protesters and police in full riot gear. An NYPD official said the demonstrations weren't violent overall, except for a few bottles thrown at police officers.

Yale University police arrested at least 45 protesters Monday and charged them with criminal trespassing after they refused orders to leave, said police in New Haven, Connecticut, though dozens of protesters remained Tuesday morning.

Harvard University has closed Harvard Yard and officials at the university suspended a pro-Palestinian student organization for allegedly violating school policies.

And nine people were arrested Tuesday morning at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus after they formed an encampment that went against school policy.

Students, faculty and staff at the University of New Mexico peacefully protested Monday in support of Gaza, the university said in a statement Tuesday.

Protesters zero in on school's financial investments

Activists at Columbia said they want a "complete divestment" from anything related to Israel, financial transparency into the university's investments and amnesty from any disciplinary measures for students participating in the protests.

University officials warned earlier Tuesday that the encampment is violating school rules but did not provide specific disciplinary consequences. New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Tuesday authorities have identified "outside agitators" causing problems at the mostly peaceful student protests at Columbia, NYU and other schools in the city.

The encampment at Columbia University was lively early this week, with many students congregating in circles, eating and talking.

A group of Jewish and non-Jewish students gathered at the encampment to celebrate Passover Seder Monday night. Columbia student Cameron Jones told CNN: "I am Jewish and, to me, Passover symbolizes perseverance and resilience. I think this encampment represents those two ideals because we have seen the university take countless measures to try to suppress our student activism, and here is us persevering through that."

But some other Jewish students say they fear for their safety. Jacob Schmeltz, a senior at Columbia, told CNN he typically celebrated Passover on campus, but has chosen to go home for the holiday this year.

"Jewish students have had enough, and it's gotten to the point that we feel safer off campus than on it," he said.

In the national spotlight

As the protests stretch on, they have increasingly caught the attention of lawmakers. On Tuesday, the White House said that Biden was "of course aware" of the pro-Palestinian protests at college campuses across the country.

"We know that this is a painful moment for many communities, we respect that, and we support every American's right to peacefully protest, that's something that we have been consistent about," White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates told reporters.

Bates also reiterated that the White House denounced calls for violence and antisemitic rhetoric.