Columbia Says Student Protesters Agree to More Talks and to Remove Some Tents

By Equipo
10 Min Read

Nemat Shafik, Columbia University’s besieged president, faced skeptics on Wednesday in a meeting with the university senate that could vote to censure her over her handling of protests on the Upper Manhattan campus.

Dr. Shafik, who last week called in the police officers who made more than 100 arrests while they cleared a student protest encampment, is facing mounting calls for her resignation, including from House Speaker Mike Johnson, who visited Columbia on Wednesday. If Dr. Shafik ultimately remains atop Columbia, her meeting with the university senate made plain that it will likely be as a scarred figure.

Dr. Shafik defended her choice to summon the New York authorities to campus, according to three people who attended the meeting at the law school. But, according to two of those people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting, Dr. Shafik used part of her roughly hourlong appearance to acknowledge that the decision to bring in the police had exacerbated the problems. She said she believed, though, that it was necessary for the safety of protesting students.

The group could vote on a censure as soon as Friday, but some senators were discussing the possibility of pursuing a more moderate course in the aftermath of Wednesday’s meeting.

Although predicting the outcome of a university senate vote is an inexact science — the body includes in excess of 100 faculty members, students, alumni and administrators from a wide range of academic disciplines — a draft censure resolution was unsparing. In it, Dr. Shafik was accused of violating fundamental rules by ignoring a 13-member senate executive committee that had unanimously rejected her request to ask the police onto campus.

By calling in the police anyway, the resolution said, Dr. Shafik had endangered both the welfare and the futures of the arrested students. Dr. Shafik had already angered many at Columbia with her testimony on Capitol Hill on April 17, when she tried to placate Republican lawmakers but provoked outrage on campus, in part for not robustly defending academic freedom.

Carol Garber, a professor of biobehavioral sciences, said Wednesday’s meeting included the voices of many senate members who were “upset and hurt,” with many “unhappy with some of the statements” Dr. Shafik made in Washington.

Protest management is a particularly resonant matter for modern Columbia presidents, professors and students, who have known well how Grayson L. Kirk’s tenure came to a turbulent close after widespread criticism of his handling of demonstrations in 1968.

To some of Dr. Shafik’s critics, her choice last week echoed that strategy and should yield a similar outcome.

So far, the university senate is not expected to call for Dr. Shafik’s removal, with a censure vote meant to signal serious disapproval, not a demand for an ouster. Some senators fear allowing outsiders too great a voice in university affairs. And another draft of the resolution was in the works that stopped short of a censure but was described as more of an expression of disapproval with the administration.

“It really isn’t a precedent any academic institution wants to set,” Dr. Garber said in an interview. “We shouldn’t be bullied by someone in Congress. If something happens on Friday, are we capitulating to an outside force?”

But to many people on campus, Columbia has already done so — whether by allowing protesters, for now, to rebuild their encampment or by turning to the police last week.

And on Wednesday, it was far from settled how long the resurrected protest zone would last, or whether Columbia would again seek arrests.

Not even 12 hours after Columbia’s predawn assertion of progress in its negotiations with the demonstrators, a protest leader all but dismissed some of the university’s claims.

To extend talks, according to the university, the protesters agreed to remove a significant number of the tents erected on the lawn. Columbia also said the protesters had pledged that non-students would leave the encampment, and that they would bar discriminatory or harassing language among the demonstrators.

But on Wednesday morning, an organizer announced to other students at the encampment that they would not be “doing the university’s job of removing people from this camp for them,” insisting that demonstrators would not become “cops to each other.» And the organizer declared that the protesters were “committed to staying here and having people stay here.”

University officials did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday about the protest leader’s remarks at the encampment, which some demonstrators said they expected to be free of police activity until at least Friday. But Columbia has set an early Friday deadline for an agreement and left open the possibility of dismantling the camp using “alternative options.”

Protesters and university officials were also at odds over what was said during their urgent talks. A student group, which had been suspended by the university, insisted that administrators had suggested that the National Guard could be deployed to campus, a tactic Mr. Johnson urged after he met with Dr. Shafik on Wednesday.

Protesters say their vigil has been peaceful. And a spokeswoman for Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York noted that the governor said publicly she had no plans to send the Guard onto the campus.

Ben Chang, a spokesman for Columbia, said the claim that the university threatened that the Guard could be deployed was “completely baseless.”

Separately on Wednesday, Columbia’s board defended Dr. Shafik, saying in a statement that it “strongly supports President Shafik as she steers the university through this extraordinarily challenging time.”

The board added, “During the search process for this role, President Shafik told us that she would always take a thoughtful approach to resolving conflict, balancing the disparate voices that make up a vibrant campus like Columbia’s, while taking a firm stance against hatred, harassment and discrimination. That’s exactly what she’s doing now.”

The events at Columbia are at the center of a spate of unrest rocking campuses from California to Connecticut as the end of the semester approaches. Across the country, administrators have struggled to balance principles like open debate with the need to protect Jewish students. Some demonstrations have included hate speech, threats or support for Hamas, the armed group based in Gaza that led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, sparking the war that has left tens of thousands of people dead.

Brown University said it had warned about 90 students Wednesday morning that their new encampment broke university rules and that they faced school discipline. At California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, dozens of protesters occupied a building on the campus, which has been closed since Monday. And on the other end of the state, at the University of Southern California, about 100 protesters set up an encampment, which security officials quickly moved to dismantle.

But many other campuses, even ones that had seen protests earlier in the week, were largely quiet, with students and professors alike preparing for final exams.

At Columbia, the encampment on Wednesday at times seemed far quieter than it had, especially when Dr. Shafik’s first deadline had loomed.

Tents that protesters frantically broke down Tuesday night stood pitched again. A group of Muslim students prayed together, and protesters passed through a canopy to get food from Dunkin’ and Popeyes.

At each entrance to the encampment, demonstrators stood guard. Not far away, Columbia’s preparations for commencement went on.

Anna Betts, Eryn Davis, Lola Fadulu, Annie Karni, Victoria Kim, Santul Nerkar, Katherine Rosman, Karla Marie Sanford, Ed Shanahan and Jonathan Wolfe contributed reporting.

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