The Columbia University camp ended with a massive police operation. Here’s how some schools get around it

The Columbia University camp ended with a massive police operation. Here’s how some schools get around it

After days of protests, pro-Palestinian encampments on the campuses of Ivy League schools Columbia and Brown came down last week.

But while the end of Columbia’s apparently pro-Palestinian encampment has been marred by the takeover of a building, mass arrests, and widespread condemnation of a heavy police presence, the encampments have come down voluntarily at Brown and other institutions like Northwestern University.

And other public universities, such as Rutgers University and the University of Minnesota, also reached peaceful agreements with protesters.

Notably, none of the schools agreed to fully divest from companies doing business in Israel, a demand student protesters have rallied across the country. Although there were people on both sides who criticized the agreement at Brown and Northwestern, the deal nevertheless eased the tense standoff that had spread at other colleges and universities across the country.

A delicate balance
College officials face a delicate balance between encouraging dialogue and allowing free speech while keeping their campuses safe and running, free speech experts told CNN. Some schools achieve this, at least temporarily, and prevent situations where the presence of police to break up encampments leads to violence and fear.

Schools where administrations are “willing to put a little lower foothold and treat the speech that happens in their public spaces as not catastrophic but something that might be addressed through dialogue have fared better,” said Sophia Rosenfeld, a history professor who teaches classes on speech. free at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rosenfeld said Brown provided conversation — not concessions — and that was enough to dispel the camp.

Lena Shapiro, director of the First Amendment clinic at the University of Illinois College of Law, said that when it comes to demonstrations, colleges must take precautions to ensure that everyone has a space to demonstrate.

“First and foremost, the safety of all students is paramount,” he said. Shapiro added that schools can place reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of protests to maintain order, but at the same time should keep open lines of communication with protesters to try to find common ground.

Some school leaders set the tone early. For example, Northwestern President Michael Schill issued a statement expressing his horror at the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. In the same letter, Schill, who is Jewish, made sure to distinguish between himself and his public role as president. He also reaffirmed his commitment to the Chicago Principles, which are a set of commitments to free speech that many colleges have adopted.

“Just to be clear, as individuals in a democracy, we do not give up our right to have and express our personal political and social views. We just need to make it clear that we are speaking for ourselves,” Schill wrote.

What the school agreed to do
On Monday, Northwestern announced an agreement with protesters to end the encampment. The school agreed to greater transparency on certain investment holdings and fully funded the cost of attendance for five Palestinian students.

Northwestern also allows protesters on Deering Meadow, a stretch of grass on campus, until the end of the quarter if there is only one tent.

Rutgers agreed to meet with student protesters to discuss the release and support scholarships for at least 10 displaced Gaza students. Rutgers, along with Northwestern, agreed to expand space for Arab and Muslim students on campus. Rutgers also said it would “review and follow up” on existing relationships with Birzeit University in the West Bank and consider student exchange or study abroad programs.

The University of Minnesota said it would allow protesters to present a case for divestment to its board. It also said it would “explore” affiliation with a Palestinian university and that it would make a “good faith effort” to disclose as much information as possible about its holdings, as well as not pursue disciplinary action against protesters affiliated with the school.

Brown’s board agreed to hold a vote on the disposal in the fall. Brown also said no students or faculty members involved in the protest will face retaliation, though they emphasized that they will investigate reports of bias, harassment or discrimination. Rutgers made a similar commitment.

Inside Brown University
Brown, located in Providence, Rhode Island, has not had a police-free campus in six months. Twenty students were arrested in November and 41 in December for trespassing during a sit-in in University Hall demanding the divestment of companies doing business with Israel, according to the university’s student newspaper.

Calls for divestment have continued for at least a decade, said Owen Dahlkamp, an editor at the Brown Daily Herald.

Dahlkamp said students were uncomfortable with the police presence on campus, and many were angered by the arrest. Student activists are still advocating that charges be dropped against those arrested in December. Brown dropped charges against 20 arrested in November.

But Brown took a different approach when encampments began popping up across the country. On the front page, which serves as more of a public space than the interior of the hall, the university reiterated that while the camps are not illegal, they can violate student behavior policies.

“Brown has always prided itself on resolving differences through dialogue, debate and listening to each other. I cannot allow the encampment, which violates University policy,” Brown President Christina Paxson said Tuesday in a statement announcing an agreement for five students to meet with five members of the Brown University Corporation in May to present their divestment arguments.

While some on social media argued Brown agreed to reject the divestment decision, Dahlkamp said the students he spoke with were satisfied with the deal.

“It feels like a compromise but not a compromise that they feel negative about,” Dahlkamp said. “There are some students who have casually said they believe Brown can calm things down but don’t have to give up much. It will be interesting to see if (the waiver) will pass.”

Dahlkamp called CNN from the front yard, where the camper once stood. He described students as relaxing, studying and reading as the academic year ends.

Watching images come out of Columbia, as well as the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Texas at Austin, Dahlkamp said the resolution was an important step.

“This is not a final victory, but still a victory,” he said.

A road map for the future
The agreement is no guarantee of a smooth road ahead. For example, the Midwestern branch of the Anti-Defamation League called for Northwestern President Michael Schill to resign, writing he was “giving in to hatred and bigotry.” Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, who has led congressional hearings on antisemitism, called the Northwestern students who showed up “self-proclaimed terrorists” in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Those who criticized Northwestern on social media said the students who made the deal did not support a strong enough commitment to divest from the school.

But with events moving so fast, it may be difficult for schools to keep up, said Lena Shapiro of the University of Illinois College of Law.

For example, President Michael S. Roth at Wesleyan University said Tuesday that the encampment could continue as long as the protests remained nonviolent and did not disrupt campus operations.

“There will be many on campus cheering on the protesters, and many who are offended or frightened by the rally and their message. But as long as we all reject violence, we have an opportunity to listen and learn from each other,” Roth said Tuesday in a statement.

But in a letter on Thursday, he said the university will not tolerate vandalism and will hold those responsible for the damage accountable. He reiterated the protesters “brought attention to the killing of innocent people.”

“We don’t want to move in this direction unless necessary and would rather talk to the protesters about what we can do as an institution to deal with the war in Gaza. Recent agreements at Brown University and Northwestern University may point the way,” Roth wrote.

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