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Columbia Mess Turns Into a Political Football

Some of America's most notable college campuses are beset by tensions right now, thanks to conflict between pro-Palestine and/or Muslim students and pro-Israel and/or Jewish students. Harvard, Stanford and MIT were just given grades of "F" by the Anti-Defamation League for their policies to protect Jewish students from antisemitism on campus. Things have been rough at Berkeley for nearly the entire academic year. USC canceled the planned graduation speech from Muslim student Asna Tabassum, who is valedictorian, and then, to be "fair," canceled all of the various speakers scheduled for all of the various graduation ceremonies on campus this year.

But the campus that is really under the microscope right now is Columbia, which has become something close to a police state. Angry protesters, mostly on the pro-Palestine side, have made life on campus unpleasant to unbearable for their opponents. NYPD officers in riot gear are now a fixture on campus, with New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D), who is a shameless opportunist, constantly sending more. Professors are required to have an armed escort to their classrooms and offices. All classes, for the remainder of the semester, will be hybrid, so that students who feel unsafe can attend meetings from home. This is undoubtedly not what President Minouche Shafik, who used to run the London School of Economics, and has only been on the job at Columbia for about a year, signed up for.

At this point, speaking as academics, let us point out what the imperatives are for Shafik and the various other university administrators. First, they have to be worried about the politicians. As was the case in the 1960s, there are some politicians who are legitimately concerned about the conflicts on the nation's campuses, and there are some politicians who are looking to score cheap political points. A number of Jewish members of Congress toured Columbia yesterday; we suspect they are in the "legitimately concerned" camp. Several non-Jewish members held a rally/press conference just down the street from Columbia; we suspect they are in the "scoring cheap points" camp. In any case, whether well-intentioned or not, all of these politicians who are sticking their noses into university business are not helping to calm things down, and are more probably helping to heighten tensions.

The other imperative is the donors. And the fact is that there are a lot of well-heeled donors who are pro-Israel, and not so many who are pro-Palestine. In our experience, protests are rarely at risk of becoming violent. However, press coverage of those protests can cost a university millions, or tens of millions, in lost donor funds. For example, as if on cue, yesterday New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft yanked most of the funding he had pledged to Columbia.

We do not know what the best way to deal with these protests might be, but we do have a pretty firm grasp on what the worst way is. Once you start arresting protesters (which Columbia has done, en masse), and once you start having police in riot gear patrolling the campus, you create the circumstances in which a protest CAN turn violent. This sort of behavior generally serves to substantially heighten tensions, while re-affirming the resolve of the protesters, and often winning new converts to their banner. Oh, and there's also the Streisand effect: Once you start siccing law enforcement on 20-year-olds, you absolutely guarantee you're going to become national news. Have Shafik and her peers never heard of Mario Savio?

The story has now reached the point that every politician in America is being asked for comment, including Joe Biden. After delivering a speech yesterday, he responded to reporters' questions: "I condemn the antisemitic protests. That's why I have set up a program to deal with that. I also condemn those who don't understand what's going on with the Palestinians." He was asked a follow-up question about whether Shafik should resign, and said: "I will have to find out more about that." In other words, he took a position on the situation... without really taking any position at all.

Shafik probably will end up having to resign; she's botched this so badly that there's no recovery. Meanwhile, it speaks to how difficult it is going to be for Biden to solve the "many young voters are angry about the situation in Israel" issue. Most schools are going to break for summer in the next few weeks, and they won't be back in session until August. Maybe that will help to calm things. (Z)

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