Columbia University shifts classes to remote-only after a wave of protests on campus

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Students occupy the campus Columbia University on Friday, calling for the school to divest from companies with ties to Israel.

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Alex Kent/AFP via Getty Images

Students occupy the campus Columbia University on Friday, calling for the school to divest from companies with ties to Israel.

Alex Kent/AFP via Getty Images

Columbia University announced that all classes will be remote on Monday in an attempt to “deescalate the rancor” amid growing tensions on campus over Israel’s war in Gaza.

“The decibel of our disagreements has only increased in recent days,” school president Minouche Shafik said in a statement. “We need a reset.”

The switch to virtual learning comes just days after dozens of Columbia students were suspended and arrested over a protest encampment on the school’s lawn, which called for the university to divest from companies with ties to Israel.

Meanwhile, at Yale University on Monday morning, officers arrested students who had similarly set up tents on campus urging the university to divest. The Yale Police Department told NPR that 40 to 45 people were arrested.

These flashpoints are the latest in what has been a months-long streak of turmoil on college campuses since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Attackers killed 1,200 people and took another roughly 250 hostage, Israel said.

Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza has killed over 34,000 Palestinians — two-thirds of whom were women and children, according to local health officials. Israel says around 100 hostages remain in Gaza.

A Columbia University rabbi advises Jewish students to stay home

On Wednesday, Columbia students against Israel’s war and blockade in Gaza set up camp on the school’s south lawn in what was called the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.” It occurred the same day that Shafik testified in Congress that antisemitism was a serious problem on campus and that it would not be tolerated.

The next day, Shafik called in the New York Police Department. In a statement, she said that the demonstration posed “a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University.” She added that students received multiple warnings that they were violating campus protocol. More than 100 people were taken into custody.

Tensions remained heated on campus over the weekend. On Sunday, Elie Buechler, a rabbi who works at Columbia, advised Jewish students to return home and stay home citing safety concerns. His message came a day before the start of the Jewish holiday Passover.

“It deeply pains me to say that I would strongly recommend you return home as soon as possible and remain home until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved,” Buechler wrote in a group chat with students.

He also expressed disappointment over the administration’s response to antisemitism on campus. According to the Spectator, as students played Israeli music and waved the Israeli flag in a demonstration Saturday night, one individual approached with a sign that read “Al Qasam’s next targets.” (Al-Qassam Brigades is Hamas’ military wing, responsible for numerous attacks against Israel.)

Columbia University did not immediately respond to NPR’s request for comment.

Students from schools across the U.S. stage encampments in solidarity

The arrests themselves garnered swift criticism on and off campus.

The editorial board of the student newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, wrote that the university had ignored “countless pleas to engage meaningfully with students, opting instead to continue down a path of surveillance, oppression, and authoritarian policies.”

The American Association of University Professors chapter at Columbia and Barnard College said it condemned the arrest of students engaging in peaceful protest.

“We demand that all Barnard College and Columbia University suspensions and charges be dismissed immediately,” the chapter said in a statement Saturday.

Over the past few days, students from other schools set up their own protest encampment, largely in solidarity with the Columbia students who were arrested. They also called for divestment from Israel.

According to news reports and social media posts, encampments have been staged at Yale, New York University, MIT, Tufts University, Emerson College and The New School based in New York City.

At Yale, some 40 tents and hundreds of protesters occupied Beinecke Plaza at the center of campus starting Friday night, according to the Yale Daily News. The student newspaper also reported Sunday night that the demonstration “remained peaceful.”

On Monday morning, a Yale spokesperson told YDN, “The university made the decision to arrest those individuals who would not leave the Plaza with the safety and security of the entire Yale community in mind and to allow access to university facilities by all members of our community.”

Universities clampdown on student activists

Columbia and Yale are not the only schools where leaders are taking action against student protesters on their campuses.

Earlier this month, three students from Vanderbilt University were expelled after a group of student protesters stormed into the university president’s office, injuring a campus security guard, according to the Vanderbilt Hustler student newspaper.

Last week, the University of Southern California canceled its valedictorian’s commencement speech due to unspecified safety concerns. At the time, the valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, a first-generation Muslim American, stirred controversy with her social media posts related to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

“Over the past several days, discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor,” said Andrew T. Guzmam, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at USC, in a statement on Monday.

On Saturday, the University of Pennsylvania announced that it shut down the student group Penn Students Against the Occupation of Palestine over failure to “comply with policies that govern student organizations at Penn.” UPenn did not immediately respond to NPR’s request for comment.