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Colleges rocked by unrest as pro-Palestinian protests spread


By Elizabeth Wolfe, Kelly McCleary and Matt Egan, CNN

(CNN) — Pro-Palestinian protests continue to rock major American universities on Tuesday, prompting school officials across the country to take extraordinary steps to confront the growing crisis.

Facing a seventh day of tense demonstrations that have since spread to other schools, Columbia University is moving to mostly hybrid classes on its main campus until the end of the semester.

Columbia President Minouche Shafik is under fire from faculty and students for calling in the New York Police Department last week to clear out a pro-Palestinian encampment – even as she faces intense pressure from lawmakers and donors to do the same this week.

The protests, counter-protests, actions by college officials and demands from lawmakers underscore the unrest that’s engulfed American universities, leading many students, especially Jewish students, to fear for their safety as the Passover holiday is underway.

More than 130 people were arrested Monday night at a Palestinian protest at New York University, an NYPD official told CNN. 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. The NYPD official said the demonstrations weren’t violent overall, except for a few bottles thrown at police officers.

At Yale University, at least 45 people were arrested and charged with trespassing on Monday after refusing to leave an on-campus protest, police said.

Facing a “dangerous and volatile” situation, officials at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt decided to close the campus through Wednesday and move to remote classes “for the safety of the campus community.” Protesters there barricaded themselves inside a building on campus.

Pro-Palestinian encampments have also been set up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Emerson College, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan. Nine people were arrested Tuesday morning at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus after they formed an encampment that violated school policy, the university told CNN.

Harvard University has closed Harvard Yard and officials at the university suspended a pro-Palestine student organization for allegedly violating school policies, according to the student group and a source with knowledge of the suspension.

Officials at Columbia and other universities are facing intense pressure from all sides.

Pro-Palestinian protesters and their supporters – sometimes including faculty – are condemning crackdowns on protests and free speech, while from some students, parents, donors and lawmakers are pleading with administrators to take new steps to restore order.

Members of the Columbia chapter of the American Association of University Professors are expected to move for a censure of Shafik and other university officials for the decision last week to ask the NYPD to arrest protesters on campus, the student-run news outlet Columbia Daily Spectator and Bwog reported.

At the same time, several lawmakers, including a contingent of Jewish representatives, visited the campus Monday and argued the university’s lack of action against the protesters may be violating Title IX, a law that protects students from discrimination and harassment based on their race or nationality. Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx, the chairwoman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, has warned university leaders of consequences if they do not rein in the protests.

Organizers say pro-Palestinian protesters plan to rally at the gates of Columbia on Tuesday afternoon.

In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Tuesday he is “deeply concerned” about incidents of antisemitism at Columbia and pointed to the department’s previously opened civil rights investigation.

“Antisemitic hate on college campuses is unacceptable,” Cardona said. “While we can’t comment on pending investigations, every student deserves to feel a sense of safety and belonging at school. Hate has no place at our schools.”

LIVE UPDATES: Protests at Columbia and other schools escalate

Jewish student: ‘We feel safer off campus than on it’

Protesters at Columbia are calling for the university to divest its funds from companies that profit from Israel’s war with Gaza and sever ties with Israeli universities, according to an Instagram post from Columbia University Apartheid Divest, one of the organizing groups. They are also demanding the university release a public statement calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

In recent days, the on-campus demonstrations have attracted non-university-affiliated protesters to the campus gates, which student organizers have sought to distance themselves from.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Tuesday that authorities have identified “outside agitators” causing problems at the mostly peaceful student protests at Columbia, NYU and other schools in the city.

“We can’t have outside agitators come in and be disruptive,” he said, adding that officials “strongly believe” that has been happening.

Shafik, the Columbia president, said in her statement issued shortly after 1 am ET on Monday that the on-campus tensions have been “exploited and amplified by individuals who are not affiliated with Columbia who have come to campus to pursue their own agendas.”

As the protests continue, a growing sense of unease has spread among Columbia’s Jewish community, particularly as they enter the approximately weeklong observation of Passover, a major Jewish holiday celebrating freedom.

Inbar Brand, an Israeli and Jewish student at Columbia, expressed frustration with how university officials have handled the situation.

“Columbia prefers to disrupt the expensive educations of tens of thousands of students in their last week of classes over clearing the illegal and violent local occupation of a few hundred,” Brand told CNN in an email.

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.

Hagar Chemali, an adjunct associate professor of international and public affairs at the university, told CNN, “If I had my child at Columbia, I also would tell them to go home.”

“It’s not just because of the tension on campus, it’s also because those protests on campus have invited extremists outside,” Chemali said, referring to non-student protesters who have been demonstrating near the campus.

Meanwhile, in their Resolution of Censure against Shafik, members of the American Association of University Professors accuse her and other university officials of violating “the fundamental requirements of academic freedom” and accuse an “unprecedented assault on students’ rights,” the Columbia Daily Spectator and Bwog reported.

Shafik “ignored the opinions of the faculty and students on the Senate Executive Committee who unanimously rejected her request to summon armed New York City police onto our campus” and “falsely claimed” the students arrested posed a “clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University,” the resolution submitted Monday said, according to Bwog.

The university’s general counsel, chief operating officer and the co-chairs of the Board of Trustees were also included in the resolution, Bwog reported.

The group isn’t calling for Shafik’s resignation but would like a “recommitment to our core values on the part of our President, her administration, and the Board of Trustees.”

“We want to work with her. We want her and her administration to turn back from the road that they’ve started down last week,” David Lurie, president of the Barnard and Columbia chapter of AAUP and professor of Asian humanities, told the Spectator.

“President Shafik is focused on de-escalating the rancor on Columbia’s campus. She is working across campus with members of the faculty, administration, and board of trustees, and with state, city, and community leaders, and appreciates their support,” a Columbia University spokesperson told the New York Times.

CNN has reached out to the university for comment and the AAUP for additional information.

What it’s like inside the encampment

Columbia’s West Lawn has become the epicenter of the university’s protest movement as it has become occupied by an encampment hosting scores of tents sheltering pro-Palestinian students and some allies from neighboring Barnard College.

On Monday, the encampment was quiet – a stark contrast from the outspoken protesters gathered outside the university’s private campus, whose chants included, “I believe that we will win” and “Long live the Intifada.”

A smaller group of pro-Israeli protesters had also gathered Monday, chanting “Down with Hamas” and “Victory to Israel.”

Dozens and dozens of tents lined the student encampment Monday, where tables were piled with supplies of clothes, food and hygiene products. The day’s program included teach-ins, poetry readings and film screenings. Some students were quietly finishing assignments, while others were painting posters.

Signs along the perimeter read, “End the siege on Gaza now” and “Welcome to the People’s University of Palestine.”

However, Democratic House Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey described the encampment as “full of protesters spewing incendiary antisemitic hate and vitriol.” Gottheimer was among a group of Jewish lawmakers who visited the campus Monday, including Democratic Reps. Jared Moskowitz of Florida, Dan Goldman of New York and Kathy Manning of North Carolina.

Elsewhere around campus, students were eating and completing assignments, and some walked down the street in graduation gowns, seemingly to take graduation photos. Risers are set up for an upcoming commencement ceremony.

Students arrested at Yale and NYU protests

As the demonstrations at Columbia have stretched on, smaller protests – some with their own encampments – have emerged at several major colleges and universities across the country.

The dozens of students arrested at Yale Monday morning “will be referred for Yale disciplinary action, which includes a range of sanctions, such as reprimand, probation, or suspension,” the university said.

The demonstrators were “advocating for Yale’s divestment from military weapons manufacturers,” a university spokesperson said.

The arrests at NYU Monday night came during a demonstration outside its business school near Washington Square Park.

An initial protest of about 50 people began Monday morning, NYU spokesperson John Beckman said in a statement.

“The University closed access to the plaza, put barriers in place, and made clear that we were not going to allow additional protesters to join because the protests were already considerably disruptive of classes and other operations in schools around the plaza.”

Additional protesters – many the university believe were not affiliated with NYU – pushed through barriers and joined the demonstration Monday afternoon and the school witnessed “disorderly, disruptive, and antagonizing behavior,” the school said.

In a letter to the NYPD, NYU said the demonstrators refused repeated requests to leave and the school requested that police clear the protesters, whom the school considered trespassers, according to a copy of the letter shared by Deputy Police Commissioner of Operations Kaz Daughtry.

CNN’s Chris Boyette, Mark Morales, Holly Yan, Caroll Alvarado, Ramishah Maruf, Chandelis Duster, Nic F. Anderson, Isabel Rosales, Shimon Prokupecz, Cindy Von Quednow, Melissa Alonso and Robert Ilich contributed to this report.

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