Ask the Experts

Ask the Experts: How did pro-Palestine protests impact New York’s colleges?

For our Higher Education issue, we asked what to expect when the new semester starts.

Columbia University was the first to see protest encampments in support of Palestine.

Columbia University was the first to see protest encampments in support of Palestine. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It started on April 17 at Columbia University. As university President Minouche Shafik testified at a contentious congressional hearing about antisemitism on the heels of two Ivy League presidents’ resignations, dozens of students set up the Gaza Solidarity Encampment and vowed to occupy the space until Columbia divests from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Gaza. Inspired by the demonstration, students at other colleges across the country started establishing their own encampments and issuing similar demands in the ensuing days. So began a period of protests, counter protests, faculty walkouts, thousands of arrests, suspensions and expulsions, campus lockdowns, occupations of buildings and canceled graduation ceremonies. The movement sparked political backlash, fractured trust between students and administrators, and incited conversations about ethical investing, free speech, antisemitism, campus activism and much more.

Campus protests have largely dissipated as colleges and universities quiet over the summer, but a potentially tumultuous fall semester looms. Many student protesters have vowed not to let up in their calls for the end of the war and divestment from companies linked to Israel. Unlike this spring though, when the wave of protests sprung up quickly, college administrators have the summer to review how they responded while also assessing how the spring’s demonstrations have changed campus life, perhaps for good. 

City & State reached out to four experts to get their perspectives on how the movement of student protests this spring sets the stage in New York for this fall:

– Queens City Council Member Robert Holden, who was formerly a professor at New York City College of Technology

– CUNY Graduate Center political science professor Celina Su

– Brooklyn College professor of educational leadership, law, and policy David Bloomfield
– and Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism at CUNY. 

Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How has the wave of pro-Palestine student demonstrations and college leaders’ responses this spring impacted New York colleges?

Robert Holden: The wave of pro-Palestine demonstrations on campuses has exposed a troubling bias in New York colleges. College leaders have largely failed to protect Jewish students from harassment and intimidation. This negligence has opened the door to increased political interference and economic repercussions. Colleges should prioritize the safety and well-being of all students, especially those facing targeted harassment.

David Bloomfield: Student demonstrations’ effects are widespread. In addition to the disruptive demonstrations themselves, ensuing anxiety on the part of students, faculty, and administration is palpable leading, for instance, to Brooklyn College searching faculty cars for hidden contraband and even outsiders supposedly hidden in trunks! This type of extreme reaction, including cops clearing encampments with attendant college and criminal consequences, gives an added sense that campus leadership has lost its ethical and administrative moorings.

Angus Johnston: The most significant impact of this wave of activism has been that it has brought long-simmering student discontent with Israeli policies toward the Palestinians to a full boil. Whatever may transpire in Israel and Palestine between now and Labor Day, a return to the status quo of a year ago is now unthinkable. The new Israel-Palestine activism will surely evolve going forward, but in one form or another it will be a prominent feature of American campus life for a long time to come.

Things have largely quieted over the summer, but fall semester – and with it the full return of campus life – beckons. How might things be different in the fall? 

Robert Holden: With the fall semester approaching, colleges must take a firmer stance. This means implementing policies that unequivocally protect Jewish students and ensure campuses are safe from hate speech and violence. College leaders should be more receptive to dialogue but also ready to enforce rules that prevent disruptive protests from spiraling out of control. Strengthening security measures and clear consequences for harassment are essential.

David Bloomfield: There will likely be some calm when the semester begins if only because it takes time to organize large-scale student actions. A ceasefire would clearly reset the tone. And I believe administrators have learned lessons in softer control techniques such as preventing encampments to begin with and greater reluctance to call in law enforcement.

Angus Johnston: The crackdowns of the spring failed to achieve their objectives, most spectacularly at Columbia, which was left with no collegewide commencement, no reduction in protest intensity, and – as of this writing – an indefinitely closed campus. While there were no high-profile negotiated settlements to encampments in New York state, I expect that at least some administrators have been taking note of the campuses across the country – including neighbors like Rutgers – where such negotiations were concluded successfully.

What potential economic impacts are New York colleges facing? How might this factor in how college leaders approach the fall semester? 

Robert Holden: Economically, New York colleges are at risk. If they continue to mishandle these demonstrations, they will face significant funding cuts and a decline in donations. Colleges should focus on demonstrating their commitment to protecting all students, which will help maintain financial support and attract future students who value a safe learning environment.

David Bloomfield: Highly selective colleges like NYU and Columbia will see no revenue loss on the student side, but large donors may be hesitant to contribute without substantial promises to quell pro-Palestinian protests and anti-Israel/antisemitic rhetoric. On the other hand, CUNY is already seeing lower enrollment – a key revenue stream – and campus protests might lead some students who are already on the fence about the need and cost of higher education to avoid the agita that college protests might produce.

Celina Su: Right now, I don’t envision economic impacts from dramatically different enrollment numbers or portfolio investments, but I am concerned about potential economic impacts due to the police responses to the student demonstrations. It’s impossible to understand the economic impacts of the student encampments without contextualizing them in the current budget crisis and long-running austerity as policy, with police as a glaring exception. Like New York City K-12 schools, many New York colleges have been suffering from lower enrollment numbers since the pandemic, and they have been facing contracting shortfalls because of that. Faculty and staff at the City University of New York, where I work, have been working without a contract for over a year, and the union has been in negotiations with management to resist further austerity measures. Dozens of staff were laid off mid-year. CUNY is facing budget cuts of almost $100 million. 

The police response to student protests has tremendous costs, and CUNY is complicit in this, in using precious funds for policing. The City College of New York President and CUNY Chancellor called on the police to respond to student protests on April 30, and since then, CUNY has approved (an up to) $4 million short-term contract for additional private officers there, or $600,000 a week. 

Angus Johnston: The current schism between American liberals and leftists over Israel and Palestine is to a large degree a generational one. I can think of no other issue on which young progressives on campus are more powerfully alienated from the positions taken by mainstream liberals of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. This has many ramifications for the campus, but one of the most significant in this era of declining public funding for higher education is that it places students and alumni – and donors more generally – on opposite sides of the divide. Campus administrators who have become adept in finding common ground between the various constituencies on their campuses, or at least in adopting rhetorical strategies that provide an illusion of such commonality, are now finding themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Over the past several months, congressional committees have cross-examined college presidents, Republicans have threatened to cut billions in financial aid and research funding for schools they say have failed to protect Jewish students, and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened a bevy of discrimination investigations. How have New York lawmakers responded? Has political interference also increased in the state, and can we expect this to continue?

Robert Holden: New York lawmakers have rightly increased scrutiny on colleges that fail to protect Jewish students. Political interference is necessary to ensure these institutions are held accountable. Increased oversight and potential legislative action are vital to enforce this accountability.

David Bloomfield: New York politicians have been visible on multiple issues surrounding the Israel/Gaza War – some calling out Hamas for the Oct. 7 attacks and the taking of over (250) hostages and others for Israel's devastating attacks on Gazan civilians and infrastructure. Rep. Elise Stefanik may ride to the vice presidential nomination, even the vice presidency, on her harsh criticism of college presidents' handling of pro-Palestinian demonstrations. … Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have consistently supported military aid to Israel although Schumer has seen pushback after his surprisingly strong criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Pro-Palestinian allies have been less visible, but Rep. Jamaal Bowman may lose his seat as a result of his opposition to Israel’s actions.

Celina Su: This is more of a continuation/crystallization of long-standing political interference than a sharp turn. In 2013, for instance, the political science department at Brooklyn College co-sponsored an event featuring Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti, speaking about the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement. Ten City Council members wrote to the college president threatening that the City Council might withhold future funding if the event went as planned. Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg retorted, “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.” The event took place with vociferous civil debate, without incident.

While political interference existed before, it feels like there’s now less protection against such interference. There has been less political support for events that could promote such debates or dialogues this past year. Last fall, when students asked for a permit for a peaceful pro-Palestinian rally on campus; they did not receive the permit and gathered on the sidewalk, just outside the campus gates. Then, New York City Council Member Inna Vernikov illegally brought and brandished a gun at the event, calling it a “pro-Hamas rally.” (Editor’s note: Charges against Vernikov were ultimately dropped because the gun she turned in was not functioning.) Students and faculty were terrified.