College Tensions Take Hostile Turn as Expulsions Threatened over Protests

Matt McClain/The Washington Post
House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) warned university officials at a news conference at the Capitol that “you’re going to see funding sources begin to dry up” if protests are not brought under control.

The standoff between student protesters and college administrators took a sharply hostile turn on campuses nationwide Tuesday as schools threatened expulsions and dismantled tent encampments while police arrested more than 200 people demonstrating against the Israel-Gaza war.

At Columbia University in New York, the protest movement’s epicenter, students who barricaded themselves inside a classroom building insisted they’d stay for the long haul. A university spokesman accused them of breaking doors and windows, and city officials said they will face charges including trespassing, criminal mischief and third-degree burglary. Dozens remained inside Hamilton Hall by evening.

Days before final exams, with commencement ceremonies nearing, America’s colleges and universities face a daunting dilemma: As frustrations and antagonisms flare on all sides, how can academia strike the right balance between safety and free expression?

From California to Texas to Florida, student protesters continue to dig in their heels, with many refusing to stand down until their institutions slash financial ties to Israel and arms manufacturers supplying the Netanyahu government, among other forces they blame for that country’s devastation of Gaza in retaliation for an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed about 1,200 Israelis.

Few universities have signaled a willingness to change how they invest endowment funds, though Brown University in Rhode Island became a notable exception Tuesday. Officials there announced that five students will be allowed to meet with the Corporation of Brown University in May to present their arguments for divestment. That board will then take a vote in October.

“This is a huge moment not only nationally but for the divestment movement on campus,” said Arman Deendar, a 21-year-old junior and spokesperson for the Gaza Solidarity Encampment. “The energy on campus has been electric. … We’re riding on this win.”

President Christina H. Paxson characterized the decision as a reflection of the university’s DNA. “Brown has always prided itself on resolving differences through dialogue, debate and listening to each other,” she said in a message to students.

Two weeks of sometimes violent protests on private and public campuses have garnered global attention, provoking heated debate on Capitol Hill and cautious criticism from the Biden administration, which has urged students to avoid hateful rhetoric while exercising their First Amendment rights.

The takeover of Columbia’s Hamilton Hall – a building that has been occupied by student protesters several times since the late 1960s – is “not an example of peaceful protest,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday. “A small percentage of students shouldn’t be able to disrupt the academic experience.”

Law enforcement officials have raised questions about the identities of the barricaded protesters. Some appear to be not students but “professional outside agitators,” New York Police Commissioner Edward Caban said in a news conference late Tuesday. Mayor Eric Adams advised parents to coax their children home.

Democrats in Congress have called for efforts to “lower the temperature.” Republicans have demanded that college administrators quell the burgeoning demonstrations, which they assert are rife with antisemitism. The GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump, told reporters Tuesday that student protesters should face punishments similar to those meted out to his supporters prosecuted for their part in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol.

House Republican leaders announced a “House-wide effort to crack down on antisemitism on college campuses” and threatened to strip federal funding from some universities. The effort, which they said would include legislation and oversight investigations, underscores the deep political divisions that have emerged across the country over the depth of U.S. support for Israel.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), speaking at a news conference, assailed the “woke university presidents” who have tolerated such “pro-Hamas agitators” and called on university leaders to allow police to break up the protest encampments. If universities don’t stand up to these movements and restore order, he said, “you’re going to see funding sources begin to dry up.”

On Wednesday, the House is expected to pass a bill that its lead sponsor, Rep. Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.), said would give the Department of Education “the tools to … hold college administrators accountable for refusing to address antisemitism on their campuses,” by defining such discrimination as behavior that encompasses not just threats of violence against Jews but also certain criticisms of the modern state of Israel.

And in three weeks, the presidents of Yale, UCLA and the University of Michigan have been told to appear for another House hearing on what Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) characterized as their handling of these recent “outrages.”

Since the first crackdown on Columbia’s student encampment sparked similar protests across the country, authorities have arrested more than 1,300 demonstrators, according to a Washington Post tally.

After students staged a sit-in at a Princeton University building, the school president warned late Monday that punishments could escalate to expulsion. Columbia started sending suspension notices – and warning that expulsions could follow.

“Neither side is conceding any points, so both sides are pushing the campus towards police intervention,” said Sadia Safa, 22, a senior in political science and history who for days was part of the encampment on the university’s center lawn. “It’s all talking points and reactions. No strategies.”

The biggest law enforcement roundups this week have unfolded at Virginia Tech, where campus police had arrested more than 80 people by Monday morning, and the University of Texas at Austin, where officers detained 79 demonstrators who had stayed put after the school issued a dispersal order.

The influx of protester arrests has added “tremendous strain” to the criminal justice system in Austin by “cycling people in and out of jail on low-level charges,” said Travis County Attorney Delia Garza. Nearly five dozen people had been arrested on the UT campus last week; all charges were subsequently dropped for “deficiencies.”

Police in Virginia’s capital, meanwhile, deployed pepper spray at Virginia Commonwealth University – a confrontation that ended with 13 arrests. On the other side of the country, officers ended a week-long occupation of an administration building at California State Polytechnic University at Humboldt, arresting 25 in the clear-out.

“What was occurring was not free expression or a protest,” the university said in a statement. “It was criminal activity, and there were serious concerns it would spread even further on campus.”

Arizona State University is reviewing a video that showed officers removing a Muslim protester’s hijab during weekend arrests on campus, a spokesperson said Tuesday. The headscarves of at least four protesters – two of them students, all from Arizona – were confiscated by authorities, according to their attorney, Zayed Al-Sayyed.

“They stripped me of my humanity, violating not only my rights but also my dignity,” one of the students said in a statement released by Al-Sayyed.

With protesters representing only a small share of students on all these campuses, schools are trying to restore calm so that graduation ceremonies can proceed without disruption.

Pro-Palestinian activism on college campuses has proliferated since the deadly rampage last fall by Hamas militants, who still hold Israeli hostages. Israel’s military countered with a campaign that to date has killed more than 34,000 people in Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

The rhetoric has grown increasingly heated and, at times, threatening. Yet while universities must strive to guard everyone’s safety, cracking down too harshly on protests usually intensifies them, noted Robert Cohen, a professor of social studies and history at New York University who tracks student activism.

Columbia is a case in point, in his view. If police hadn’t broken up encampments on April 18, would protesters have later felt compelled to lock themselves inside a school building?

The University of California at Berkeley, by contrast, seems to be avoiding bigger headaches by giving demonstrators ample space to air their views, Cohen said. By summer, he predicted, the encampments will fade away – though perhaps regroup around the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which is scheduled for late August.

“It’s best to deal with these protests with negotiations rather than police force,” he said, “as long as they are nonviolent.”

Overseas, students at universities in the Arab world have organized protests in solidarity with the American demonstrators.

In Tunisia, for instance, the country’s student union called for a week-long strike of classes. Photos on the union’s Facebook page showed students marching through different cities, demanding an end to the war.

At Lebanese American University in Beirut, meanwhile, students draped a Palestinian flag down a campus building, and they burned the Israeli flag.

On American soil, some Jewish students say the swelling public hostility toward Israel has shaken their sense of security.

Henry Sears, a 22-year-old Columbia senior, said it was already hard over the last two weeks to focus on studying for three final exams. Then his peers locked themselves inside Hamilton Hall, and his efforts to concentrate sputtered out.

“It felt way more intense – occupying and barricading a building, compared to just being on the lawn with tents,” he said.

Sears woke Tuesday to a flurry of worried texts, he said.

“I want to leave,” one friend messaged at 9:30 a.m.

“I would,” he replied, “if I wasn’t graduating.”