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Columbia University’s encampment ended with a mass police operation. Here’s how some schools avoided that

New York

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

But while the apparent end of Columbia’s pro-Palestinian encampments was marred by a takeover of a building, a mass arrest, and a widespread condemnation of the heavy police presence, encampments came down voluntarily at Brown and other institutions like Northwestern University.

And other public universities, like Rutgers University and the University of Minnesota, also peacefully reached agreements with protesters.

Notably, none of the schools agreed to fully divest from companies doing business in Israel, a demand student protesters have commonly rallied for across the country. While there were people on both sides who criticized the agreements at Brown and Northwestern, the deals nevertheless diffused a tense standoff that has boiled over at other colleges and universities across the country.

College officials face a delicate balance between encouraging dialogue and allowing free expression while keeping their campus safe and running, free speech experts told CNN. Some schools achieved it, at least temporarily, and prevented a situation in which a police presence to break up encampments led to violence and fear.

The schools where an administration “was willing to lay a little lower and treat the speech going on in their public spaces as not a catastrophe but something that might be dealt with through dialogue have done better,” said Sophia Rosenfeld, a professor of history who teaches a class on free speech at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rosenfeld said Brown provided a conversation — not a concession — and that was enough to dissipate the encampments.

NYPD officers in riot gear break into a building at Columbia University, where pro-Palestinian students are barricaded inside a building and have set up an encampment, in New York City on April 30, 2024.

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

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

Some school leaders set the tone early on. For example, Northwestern President Michael Schill put out 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 a president. He also reaffirmed his commitment to the Chicago Principles, which are a set of commitments to free speech many colleges have adopted.

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

On Monday, Northwestern announced an agreement with protesters to end the encampment. The school agreed to more transparency about specific investment holdings and fully funding the cost of attendance for five Palestinian students.

Northwestern also allowed protesters on Deering Meadow, a stretch of lawn on campus, through the end of the quarter if there was only one tent.

Rutgers agreed to meet with student protesters to discuss divestment and to support scholarships for at least 10 displaced Gazan students. Rutgers, along with Northwestern, agreed to expand spaces for Arab and Muslim students on campus. Rutgers also said it would “revisit and follow up” its existing relationship with Birzeit University in the West Bank and consider a student exchange or study abroad program.

Dozens of tents and people are photographed on day two of an encampment in support of Palestinians at the University of Minnesota's campus in Minneapolis, Minn., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.

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

Brown’s board agreed to hold a vote on divestment in the fall. Brown also said no student or faculty member involved in the protests would face retaliation, though they emphasized they would investigate reports of bias, harassment or discrimination. Rutgers made a similar commitment.

Brown, which is 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 sit-ins at University Hall that demanded divestment from companies doing business with Israel, according to the university’s student newspaper.

Calls for divestment have been ongoing for at least the past 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 outraged at the arrests. Student activists are still advocating for charges to be dropped against those arrested in December. Brown dropped the charges against the 20 arrested in November.

But Brown took a different approach as encampments began popping up around the country. On the main lawn, which serves as more of a public space than the inside of a hall, the university reiterated that though the camps weren’t a legal violation, they could violate student conduct policy.

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

Though some on social media argued Brown agreed to simply push off a divestment decision, Dahlkamp said students he spoke to are satisfied with the agreement.

“It feels like a compromise but not a compromise which they feel negative about,” Dahlkamp said. “There are some students who in passing say they believe Brown was able to diffuse the situation but didn’t have to cede much. It will be interesting to see if (divestment) will pass.”

Dahlkamp called CNN from the main lawn, where the encampment once stood. He described students lounging around, studying and reading as the academic year ends.

Watching the 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 is an important step.

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

The agreements are not a guarantee for a smooth road ahead. For example, the Midwestern branch of the Anti-Defamation League called for Northwestern President Michael Schill to withdraw, writing he “capitulated to hatred and bigotry.” Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, who has spearheaded congressional hearings on antisemitism, called Northwestern students who demonstrated “self proclaimed terrorists” in a posting on Xformerly known as Twitter.

Those critical of Northwestern on social media said the students who made the agreement did not advocate for strong enough commitments for divestment from the school.

But with rapidly moving events, it can 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 the encampments could continue as long as the protest remained nonviolent and didn’t disrupt campus operations.

“There will be many on campus who cheer on the protesters, and many who are offended or even frightened by their rallies and messages. But as long as we all reject violence, we have opportunities to listen and to learn from one another,” Roth said Tuesday in a statement.

But in a letter on Thursday, he said the university would not tolerate the acts of vandalism that had taken place and would hold those responsible for the damage accountable. He reiterated the protesters are “bringing attention to the killing of innocent people.”

“We do not want to move in this direction unless necessary and much prefer to talk with protesters about things we can do as an institution to address the war in Gaza. Recent agreements at Brown University and Northwestern University might show the way,” Roth wrote.