How Columbia University became the epicenter of disagreement over the Israel-Hamas war

Americans disagree vehemently about the Israel-Hamas war. The conflict has divided friends and strained families, become a third rail in the workplace, and poses a serious political problem for President Joe Biden.

Over the past week, all that roiling discord seems to have focused with laser-like precision on one place: Columbia University in New York City.

The Ivy League school’s lush campus on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is known for many things. It’s where the popular TV show “Gossip Girl” was often filmed. It’s where Barack Obama finished his bachelor's degree and Hillary Clinton is now a professor. It even has a Donald Trump connection (Trump once called the university’s former president a “moron” for refusing to buy land from him for a new campus).

And when law enforcement arrested more than 100 protesters on campus last week, a day after the university's president testified in Washington about her handling of a spike in antisemitism, it recalled an era of foment in the late '60s that put the school on the national map.

The tumult on the New York City campus is more than just a political spectacle, though. It has become a microcosm of the intractable challenges facing higher education in the 21st century – from managing political interference to balancing freedom of speech with a need to keep students and staff safe.

A pro-Palestinian protestor is arrested outside Columbia University in Manhattan April 22, 2024. Protestors gathered on the streets near the campus after school officials closed the campus and made all classes remote. This came after hundreds of pro-Palestinian protestors took over large parts of the campus last week.
A pro-Palestinian protestor is arrested outside Columbia University in Manhattan April 22, 2024. Protestors gathered on the streets near the campus after school officials closed the campus and made all classes remote. This came after hundreds of pro-Palestinian protestors took over large parts of the campus last week.

It's not a shock Columbia has become a focal point for campus strife. The school is based in the largest U.S. city, with the second-biggest Jewish population in the world after Tel Aviv. About a fifth of the country's Muslim population is in New York City, too. The campus is easily accessible and open, a vestige of the political upheaval caused by students during the Vietnam War.

Columbia has taken flak for years from progressives who view its growth into West Harlem as an example of gentrification, and conservatives who see it as a bastion of liberalism.

All those factors have influenced the level of outrage on and around campus in recent weeks. As similar protests crop up at other universities, the demonstrations at Columbia – and the choices its leaders are making – are having a butterfly effect on schools nationwide.

“I am deeply saddened by what is happening on our campus,” Minouche Shafik, the university's president, wrote in a message to students and staff Monday morning. “Our bonds as a community have been severely tested in ways that will take a great deal of time and effort to reaffirm.”

What happened?

On Wednesday, Shafik traveled to Washington to address Republicans who had called her to a hearing about antisemitism on Columbia’s campus.

Columbia University president testifies: Minouche Shafik fends off questions that took down her Ivy League peers

Flanked by other administrators, she fended off a salvo of tough questions from Republicans and Democrats alike, many of whom expressed dismay about reports that Jewish students have felt unsafe since Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel Oct. 7. Grilling from those same lawmakers tripped up the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania at a similar proceeding in December, ultimately pushing them out of their posts.

Shafik managed to dodge the mistakes of her peers but drew the ire of many Columbia faculty with her responses to questions from some politicians about individual professors whom lawmakers singled out.

“People feel extraordinarily betrayed by her lack of following university protocol,” said Patricia Dailey, an associate English professor and vice president of Columbia's chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “She’s caved already to the ways in which this discourse is framed.”

Things only got more hectic from there. While the cameras were trained on Shafik in Washington, students set up camps on lawns at the center of campus, demanding the university sever all its ties to Israel.

The next morning, Shafik called in the New York City Police Department to clear out the demonstrators. Officers arrested more than 100 people. Law enforcement officials later said no injuries or violence were associated with that specific protest, according to the campus newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator.

Tempers flared on the edges of the partially closed campus as rallies continued over the weekend. By Monday the White House had jumped into the fray, condemning reports of antisemitic rhetoric around the campus. A university rabbi warned Jewish students to stay home for their safety, though the campus Hillel chapter disagreed with that recommendation. All classes were held online Monday.

By then, students at a growing number of universities across the country, including Harvard, Yale and the University of California, Berkeley, were taking their cues from Columbia, launching similar protests in solidarity.

History of protests

Colleges and universities have long been hotbeds for activism, playing an important role in shaping public sentiment on controversial issues. At Columbia, campus activism has a particularly contentious history.

In 1968, massive student demonstrations threw the campus into violence and chaos. Anger over the university’s ties to the Vietnam War, and its plans to build what would effectively have been a segregated school gym on public land, led to hundreds of arrests. In the end, administrators ended the school’s relationship with a war-connected think tank. Construction on the gym was halted. The 1968 protests altered administrators' attitudes about Columbia's relationship with the city, creating an impulse that persists today to make the campus feel open to the broader community.

It took Columbia decades to recover its reputation and its endowment. The fallout from the upheaval sent the university into a financial tailspin, souring relationships with rich donors.

Some New Yorkers still haven't forgotten the episode.

Outside the school’s gates Monday, a 70-year-old Columbia alum who identified herself by her first name, Daphne, held a sign that read, “50 years ago I was here to end the Vietnam War … Today I am here to say FREE PALESTINE!” She declined to give her full name because she said she feared being doxxed.

New to the job

Like the now-former presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, Shafik is new to her job. She took over the presidency just last year. Her lack of familiarity with the campus' history and internal dynamics likely hasn't been the best thing for all the controversy, said Robert McCaughey, an emeritus history professor at Barnard College and the author of “Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University."

And like her ousted Ivy League peers, she faces calls to resign. Republicans in the New York congressional delegation urged Shafik over the weekend to step down, while Democrats from the Empire State have been more judicious.

The fact that she called in police somewhat placated Rep. Virginia Foxx, a congresswoman from North Carolina and the powerful Republican chair of the House education committee. She has not called for the president's ouster.

McCaughey, who has studied every leader of the university, said he believes Shafik's presidency will survive.

"She’s got some time.”

Contributing: Clare Mulroy

Zachary Schermele covers education and breaking news for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Columbia became the epicenter of debate over the Israel-Hamas war