Columbia University main campus classes will be hybrid until semester ends; NYU students, faculty arrested during protests

Apr 22, 2024, 10:00 PM

Columbia University students hold a protest in support of Palestinians, during the ongoing conflict...

Columbia University students hold a protest in support of Palestinians, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York, Friday, April 20. (Adam Gray/Reuters via CNN Newsource)

(Adam Gray/Reuters via CNN Newsource)

(CNN) — Columbia University, the epicenter of pro-Palestinian protests at US college campuses in recent days, says all classes at its main campus will be hybrid — technology permitting — until the spring semester ends. The last day of classes is April 29, according to Columbia’s academic calendar.

“Safety is our highest priority as we strive to support our students’ learning and all the required academic operations,” the university said in an announcement Monday night.

The turmoil at the Ivy League school ramped up Monday as simmering tensions on campus halted in-person classes and officials scrambled to ease security fears. That unrest has spread to a number of other schools, including Yale University, where dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested Monday, and nearby New York University.

Earlier Monday night, NYU students and faculty members were arrested during protests on the school’s campus, the New York City Police Department confirmed to CNN.

NYU asked the NYPD to enter campus and “enforce the law,” according to a police spokesperson. The spokesperson would not confirm how many people have been arrested. CNN has reached out to NYU for comment.

At Columbia’s main campus, classes were already virtual Monday due to security concerns as Passover was set to begin. In a clear sign of the spiraling crisis, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik announced the extraordinary step in a statement posted shortly after 1 a.m. ET, citing a desire to “deescalate the rancor and give us all a chance to consider next steps.”

As the New York Police Department has built up a “large presence” around Columbia, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul visited the campus to address security concerns.

“Students are scared,” Hochul said in a video posted on X. “They are afraid to walk on campus. They don’t deserve that.”

Jacob Schmeltz, a senior at Columbia, told CNN he was going home instead of celebrating Passover, a major Jewish holiday, on campus as he has done in previous years.

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

Even the US president has weighed in. “I condemn the antisemitic protests,” Biden said when asked about the situation at Columbia.

Shafik is under pressure from all sides. Some faculty members are slamming her decision to call in the NYPD last week to disperse a pro-Palestinian protest, even as others are demanding she invite police back to clear a revived encampment of protesters.

US House GOP Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik and fellow New York Republicans wrote a letter to Shafik on Monday blaming her for the situation on campus and urging her to step down after less than a year at the helm of the prestigious university.

“Over the past few days, anarchy has engulfed the campus of Columbia University,” the lawmakers wrote.

Billionaire Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots and a prominent Columbia graduate, called for school officials to immediately end the protests and suggested he is withholding donations to the university because he’s “no longer confident that Columbia can protect its students and staff.”

“The school I love so much – the one that welcomed me and provided me with so much opportunity – is no longer an institution I recognize,” Kraft, founder of the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, said in a statement on X. “I am not comfortable supporting the university until corrective action is taken.”

Columbia spokesperson Samantha Slater responded to Kraft by telling CNN in a statement that the university is “grateful to Mr. Kraft for his years of generosity and service to Columbia.”

“This is a time of crisis for many members of our community and we are focused on providing the support they need while keeping our campus safe,” the Columbia spokesperson said.

Schmeltz, who is vice president of the Jewish on Campus Student Union, said the campus was “an absolute disaster” in recent days.

“Jewish students are extremely scared and extremely frightened,” he added.

Organizers of the campus protest – Columbia University Apartheid Divest and Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine – said in a statement, “We have been peaceful,” and distanced themselves from non-student protesters who have gathered outside the campus, calling them “inflammatory individuals who do not represent us.”

“We firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry and stand vigilant against non-students attempting to disrupt the solidarity being forged among students – Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, Jewish, Black and pro-Palestinian classmates and colleagues who represent the full diversity of our country,” the statement continued.

Demonstrations are also taking place at other campuses. Pro-Palestinian students at Boston’s Emerson College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology set up protest encampments as an act of solidarity with students at Columbia University, according to The Boston Globe. And in addition to Yale and NYU, solidarity rallies have also taken place at Harvard, the University of Michigan. the University of North Carolina, Boston University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Protests and counter protests continue

As Columbia students moved to virtual learning, scores of protesters were camped out on the university’s West Lawn Monday morning, opposite the lawn where the original encampment took place.

More than a dozen tents were pitched and tables were stocked with supplies of clothes and food. Signs along the perimeter include ones reading, “End the siege on Gaza now” and “Welcome to the People’s University of Palestine.”

The encampment is only open to those affiliated with campus.

Activities are being held inside the encampment, including teach-ins, dances, poetry readings and film screenings. On Monday, some students were quietly finishing assignments, while others were painting posters.

The inside of the encampment was quiet as most of the noise came from protestors outside the gates of campus, who were chanting, “I believe that we will win” and “Long live the Intifada.” There was a smaller group of pro-Israeli protesters, who chanted back “Down with Hamas” and “Victory to Israel.”

Meanwhile, one professor criticized the protesters outside the gates for making people afraid.

“This is happening at every US university. Jews are not safe anywhere on college campuses,” Shai Davidai, a Jewish Columbia Business School assistant professor, told a group of pro-Israel protesters Monday.

Columbia officials said last week that Davidai is under investigation for harassment. Davidai told CNN he has never spoken against students by name, only “pro-Hamas” student organizations and professors.

Other faculty members at Columbia gave short speeches on campus on Monday voicing support for the campus protests and criticizing last week’s crackdown.

“The president’s decision to send riot police to pick up peaceful protesters on our campus was unprecedented, unjustified, disproportionate, divisive and dangerous,” said Columbia history professor Christopher Brown. “Thursday, April 18, 2024 will be remembered as a shameful day in Columbia history.”

Faculty held signs that read, “Hands off our students,” and “End student suspensions now.” Some faculty donned their academic regalia and wore sashes that read, “We support students.”

Student: I’m ‘terrified, angry, upset’

“If I had my child at Columbia, I also would tell them to go home,” Hagar Chemali, an adjunct associate professor of international and public affairs at the university, told CNN on Monday. “It’s not just because of the tension on campus, it’s also because those protests on campus have invited extremists outside.”

Columbia student Noah Lederman told CNN he was “terrified, angry, upset, and horrified that the university failed to take action.” Lederman said he had been accosted in early February and had asked the university for remote learning options. “What’s happening on campus is blatantly antisemitic,” he added.

Another student said protesters are being unfairly labeled as dangerous.

“Columbia students organizing in solidarity with Palestine – including Jewish students – have faced harassment, doxxing, and now arrest by the NYPD. These are the main threats to the safety of Jewish Columbia students,” Jonathan Ben-Menachem, a PhD student, told CNN.

“On the other hand, student protesters have led interfaith joint prayers for several days now, and Passover Seder will be held at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment tomorrow,” he went on.

“Saying that student protesters are a threat to Jewish students is a dangerous smear.”

Tensions spread to Yale, NYU

At Yale University, at least 45 people – including some students – were arrested after police blocked off entrances during response to a protest at Hewitt Quadrangle & Beinecke Plaza, the school’s independent college newspaper, The Yale Daily News, reported Monday morning.

Journalists from the newspaper were also threatened with arrest if they did not move from the plaza, where demonstrators who called for the school to divest from military weapons manufacturers set up tents overnight, according to reports.

CNN has reached out to Yale University administration, the Yale Police Department and the New Haven Police Department in Connecticut for more information.

Meanwhile, hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters gathered outside NYU’s Stern School of Business on Monday, with some pro-Israel students waving Israeli flags across the street.

Some of the pro-Palestinian protesters were heard chanting, “Intifada, intifada, globalize the intifada.”

Protesters were also reciting lines and singing songs from the Haggadah, the Jewish book used during Seder. A person who identified themselves as a Jewish student at NYU was leading some songs.

Columbia’s president faces new calls for resignation

Tensions at many universities have been high ever since the October 7 terror attack on Israel by Hamas. However, the situation at Columbia escalated in recent days after university officials testified before Congress last week about antisemitism on campus and pro-Palestinian protests on and near campus surged.

Shafik said Columbia officials in the coming days will “try to bring this crisis to a resolution,” including by continuing discussions with protesters and exploring actions that can be taken.

As the situation has unfolded, the university’s president has faced new calls for her resignation, and a rabbi linked to the university even urged Jewish students to stay home due to concerns about their safety as Passover is set to begin.

Rabbi Elie Buechler, with Columbia University’s Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, confirmed to CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday he sent a WhatsApp message to a group of about 300 mostly Orthodox Jewish students “strongly” recommending they return home and remain there.

“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,” the message freads.

The campus Hillel said in a Sunday post on X they “do not believe that Jewish students should leave” the campus, but that the university and City of New York must act to protect students from harassment.

READ MORE: Rabbi associated with Columbia University recommends Jewish students ‘return home’ amid tense protests on campus

Jewish student organizations have increased security for their upcoming Passover events and services.

Police will be present at the Kraft Center, a Jewish cultural center shared by Columbia and Barnard College, throughout Passover, according to an email from Brian Cohen, the center’s executive director. Chabad, another Jewish organization at the university, said it will host Passover celebrations but has hired additional security.

Hedge fund billionaire Leon Cooperman, a prominent Columbia University donor, offered support for the Ivy League school’s embattled president even as he continues to blast students protesting against Israel.

“My view is that finally they are doing the right thing at the school…The administration is now responding properly,” Cooperman told CNN in a phone interview on Monday. “The president is now saying the right things.”

However, Cooperman, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, doubled down on his recent criticism of student protesters.

“These kids are f**king crazy. They don’t understand what they’re doing or what they’re talking about,” he told CNN.

The crisis at Columbia amounts to a massive test for Shafik.

Following a disastrous hearing on campus antisemitism before Congress in December, the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania came under enormous pressure and resigned.

Shafik testified to the House Education Committee on the same subject Wednesday, and the protests on campus have escalated in the days since, prompting Republican committee chair Rep. Virginia Foxx to warn university leaders of consequences if they do not rein in the protests.

CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe, Ramishah Maruf, Paradise Afshar, Caroll Alvarado, Shimon Prokupecz and John Towfighi contributed to this report.

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Columbia University main campus classes will be hybrid until semester ends; NYU students, faculty arrested during protests