Columbia University is colluding with the far-right in its attack on students | Moira Donegan (2024)

The students sat on the ground and sang as police in riot gear approached them. Eventually, more than 100 of them would be arrested; their tents, protest signs and Palestinian flags were gathered into trash bags by the police and thrown away. One video showed officers and university maintenance workers destroying food that had been donated to the encampment, making sure it would be inedible. According to student journalists reporting from WKCR, Columbia University’s student radio station, one arrested student protester asked the police to be allowed to go to their dorm to collect medication and was denied; as a result, they went into shock. The arrested students were charged with “trespassing” on the campus that they are charged more than $60,000 a year to attend.

The day before her administration asked the New York police department to storm their campus and arrest their students, Minouche Shafik, the Columbia University president, testified before Congress, saying that she wanted her university to be a safe and welcoming environment for everyone. But Shafik, who was called to testify after missing a hearing last year where the presidents of Penn and Harvard were each grilled on their insufficient hostility to pro-Palestinian students, appeared eager to please the Republican-controlled committee. The Penn and Harvard presidents who had testified each lost their jobs soon thereafter; Shafik clearly entered the hearing room determined to keep her own.

To that end, she made only tepid defenses of academic freedom, instead favoring wholehearted condemnations of the protesters, assents to bad-faith mischaracterizations of the students as antisemitic and genocidal, and public, apparently on-the-spot, personnel decisions that removed some pro-Palestinian faculty and staff from their positions. The hearing took on a fevered, impassioned tenor that at times verged into the outright weird. Rick Allen, a Georgia representative, asked her whether she wanted Columbia University to be “cursed by God”. Shafik, evidently taking this prospect seriously, replied that she didn’t.

The police raid against Columbia students that followed the next day can be seen as an extension of the policy of appeasem*nt and pre-emptive compliance with the anti-Palestinian, anti-student Republican right that Shafik adopted in her testimony. In its war on education and ostentatious displays of grievance against “woke” universities, the far right has made itself hostile to academic freedom, peaceful protest and vast swaths of progressive speech. In her willingness to unleash state violence against student protesters, Shafik proved herself their willing ally. It is worth stating plainly what happened at Columbia: the raid was nothing less than the product of collusion between a university administration and rightwing politicians to suppress politically disfavored speech.

Not all of the congresspeople whom Shafik testified before on Wednesday were pleased with Columbia’s approach. Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, grilled Shafik extensively on her administration’s approach to pro-Palestinian speech on campus, noting with alarm that several students had been suspended for their participation in peaceful demonstrations. “There has been a recent attack on the democratic rights of students across the country,” Omar told Shafik. The next day, Omar’s daughter, a student at Columbia’s Barnard College, was suspended from the school.

The arrests at Columbia are in many ways the product of not just the generational shift in Americans’ views on Palestine, but the bizarre situation of American universities in an era of a politically empowered far right and fervent cultural reaction. Conservative arbiters of the culture war have once again identified universities as objects of grievance; Republican members of the House, seated on committees with subpoena power, have every incentive to haul university presidents to Washington and berate them in hopes of garnering a viral news clip or issuing a clever barb that can be excerpted for their campaign ads.

Universities, meanwhile, have putative value commitments – to things like free inquiry, open expression, equality and dignity among their students and the pursuit of justice – that are in fact wildly out of step with their real institutional incentives. Sneering attention from conservatives, after all, is not merely a tedious waste of time, though it’s certainly that; it is also a threat to universities’ relationships with the people whose interests shape their academic policies with more and more bald transparency: their donors.

Shafik wanted to disperse the accusations by Republicans that her university was too deferential to a progressive cause. And so, she sicced the cops on a bunch of kids. In doing so, she betrayed not only her students, but the values of the university itself.

It is not the first time that the Columbia University administration has betrayed an unnerving eagerness to suppress pro-Palestinian speech. Columbia has been even more eager than other elite colleges to crack down on student organizing. Last year, it suspended two student groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace, over their expressions of opposition to Israel’s actions in Gaza. In January, the college failed to protect peaceful pro-Palestinian protesters on their campus when a young man approached and sprayed them with an abrasive substance that protesters believe was skunk, a chemical weapon used for crowd-control by the IDF.

This hostility to students who feel they are protesting against an ongoing genocide was evidently not enough; this week, Columbia decided to escalate their attacks on student speech yet further.

The students that were zip-tied and carted off to jail by the NYPD at Columbia on Thursday were not violent. They were not even particularly rowdy. And though some fears of rising antisemitism in the wake of growing American opposition to Israel’s actions in Gaza appear to be sincere, there is no reasonable assessment of the Columbia protesters’ concerns that can depict them as motivated by anti-Jewish animus.

Such an assessment is not possible if you take seriously, as I think any reasonable observer must, the notion that young people might be sincerely outraged by the deaths of tens of thousands of people in Gaza. What the protesters did was not endanger their university; they embarrassed it. And for that, they were arrested. Perhaps they can take pride in the knowledge that the administrators were so eager to silence them precisely because they understood that their message was so powerful.

  • Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist

Columbia University is colluding with the far-right in its attack on students | Moira Donegan (2024)


Why are the students protesting at Columbia University? ›

One of the core demands over the past week by the pro-Palestinian student groups at Columbia University has been for the school to withdraw investment funds from what they describe as companies profiting from Israel's military action in Gaza.

What happened at Columbia University in 1968? ›

The 1968 protesters occupied multiple buildings on campus and held the acting dean hostage for a day before police violently ended the occupation a week later, arresting some 700 students.

Why did Columbia University students stage large protests in the spring of 1968? ›

Several issues were at stake in 1968

For many Columbia students in 1968, their protest was motivated by anger over the Vietnam War — and changes to the military draft that were chipping away at students' deferments, particularly in graduate schools.

How Columbia's student uprising of 1968 was sparked by a segregated gym? ›

Columbia's plan to construct what activists described as a segregated gymnasium in city-owned Morningside Park fueled anger among the nearby Harlem community. Opposition began in 1965 during the mayoral campaign of John Lindsay, who opposed the project. By 1967 community opposition had become more militant.

What are students protesting at Columbia University? ›

There is growing tension at Columbia University amid the pro-Palestinian protests on the New York campus. Student protesters against Israel's assault on Gaza are demanding Columbia cut all financial ties with Israel. "It's pretty disheartening to see all this on campus.

Why did Columbia University fall? ›

Why did it fall? The Observer reported that Columbia University math professor Michael Thaddeus wrote a report that claimed the statistics used in the ranking of Columbia were inflated and ultimately misrepresented the school's class size, faculty education and instructional spending.

What was the Columbia PhD scandal? ›

The chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer of Columbia University's medical school, Alade McKen, plagiarized extensively in his doctoral dissertation, lifting entire pages of material, without attribution, from sources that include Wikipedia, according to a complaint submitted to the university on Wednesday.

What famous person went to Columbia University? ›

A total of four U.S. Presidents have been graduates of Columbia: Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Barack Obama.

Why was Columbia University renamed? ›

The www notes that “The college reopened in 1784 with a new name—Columbia—that embodied the patriotic fervor that had inspired the nation's quest for independence”.

When did Columbia University allow black students? ›

In as early as 1901, Black students began entering Teachers College, Columbia, coming from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the South, including Tuskegee, Saint Augustine's, and Howard University.

When were black students allowed at Columbia University? ›

Pixley Seme Class of 1906 is often considered the first Black graduate of Columbia College. John Dotha Jones CC 1910 was the first Black Columbian Phi Beta Kappa.

What happened at Columbia University in 1968 and why was it significant? ›

Columbia is a far different place today than it was in the spring of 1968 when protesters took over University buildings amid discontent about the Vietnam War, racism and the University's proposed expansion into Morningside Park.

When did Columbia desegregate? ›

In 1964, additional school districts in Columbia, Greenville, and thirteen other South Carolina cities desegregated upon orders from the federal government. However, the desegregation really meant that only a few Black students attended previously all-white schools.

What was the Columbia insurrection? ›

In April 1968, black and white students rebelled against the university administration, occupying five buildings, including the president's office in one of the first campus revolts of the Civil Rights/Vietnam War era.

Why is Columbia protesting? ›

The student protesters said they would occupy the lawn until the university divests from companies with ties to Israel. The encampment was timed with the upcoming congressional testimony of Columbia president Minouche Shafik that was taking place that day on the university's response to antisemitism.

What started the various sit ins and protests at Columbia University? ›

Columbia is a far different place today than it was in the spring of 1968 when protesters took over University buildings amid discontent about the Vietnam War, racism and the University's proposed expansion into Morningside Park.

What are the college kids protesting? ›

The students are calling for universities to separate themselves from any companies that are advancing Israel's military efforts in Gaza — and in some cases from Israel itself. Protests on many campuses have been orchestrated by coalitions of student groups.

What is the conflict of commitment at Columbia University? ›

The University expects that an officer's outside activities and interests will not interfere with his or her teaching, scholarly research, or other obligations to the University.

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