Columbia President Shafik Pleads With Protesters To ‘Voluntarily Disperse’ After Days of Negotiations Bring No Results

‘We urge those in the encampment to voluntarily disperse,’ Shafik says in statement

Columbia President Minouche Shafik testifies before the House Education Committee(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
April 29, 2024

MANHATTAN—For days, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik declined to clear out the unsanctioned "Gaza Solidarity" encampment in favor of negotiations with student protest leaders. Now, she says those negotiations brought no agreement and is asking students to "voluntarily" leave the encampment.

In a Monday statement, Shafik expressed regret that her "small group of academic leaders," which had been in "constructive dialogue with student organizers" since Wednesday, was "not able to come to an agreement" to end the encampment. She urged students to "voluntarily disperse."

"The encampment has created an unwelcoming environment for many of our Jewish students and faculty," Shafik said. "External actors have contributed to creating a hostile environment in violation of Title VI, especially around our gates, that is unsafe for everyone—including our neighbors. With classes now concluding, it represents a noisy distraction for our students studying for exams and for everyone trying to complete the academic year."

"We also do not want to deprive thousands of students and their families and friends of a graduation celebration," she continued. "We owe it to all of our graduates and their loved ones to honor their achievement."

"For all of the reasons above, we urge those in the encampment to voluntarily disperse. We are consulting with a broader group in our community to explore alternative internal options to end this crisis as soon as possible."

Columbia declined to comment on what those "alternative internal options" include. In a "notice to encampment," the school told students they have until 2 p.m. to "voluntarily leave" the area or face "disciplinary procedures."

"If you voluntarily leave by 2 p.m., identify yourself to a University official, and sign the provided form where you commit to abide by all University policies ... you will be eligible to complete the semester in good standing (and will not be placed on suspension) as long as you adhere to that commitment," the notice said.

"If you do not identify yourself upon leaving and sign the form now, you will not be able to sign and complete the semester in good standing. If you do not leave by 2 p.m., you will be suspended pending further investigation."

The announcement marks an embarrassment for Shafik, who devoted days to the negotiations.

Nearly one week ago, on April 23, police appeared ready to enter campus to clear the encampment after Shafik set a midnight deadline for negotiations, with students pledging to "defend the encampment" and "rally" for their "comrades" in response. Instead, Shafik pushed her deadline back twice—first to 8 a.m., then to 48 hours.

As that deadline approached, on April 25, students again prepared for their arrest, with leaders informing protesters of their "jail support infrastructure." But Shafik let her extended deadline slide without taking action, and negotiations continued from there with no deadline.

It appears unlikely that student protesters will leave the encampment, which has plagued Columbia for nearly two weeks, "voluntarily." The students have repeatedly said they "will remain in this encampment until we achieve all of our demands."

Columbia made several offers to student protesters during the negotiation process, including a "review" of its Tel Aviv Dual Degree program and a scholarship fund for Gazans, according to the student group behind the encampment, which called the scholarship offer a "bribe."

Shafik confirmed her Gazan scholarship offer in her statement.

"The University also offered to make investments in health and education in Gaza, including supporting early childhood development and support for displaced scholars," she said. "There are important ideas that emerged from this dialogue, and we plan to explore pursuing them in the future."