The pressure from alumni in Columbia comes along with a mayor who fights crime

As influential alumni pressured Columbia’s president to do more to quell protests on campus, the mayor of New York City offered to lend a hand.


Six days ago, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik indicated she had no plans to bring back police to respond to pro-Palestinian protesters on the grounds of the Ivy League school in Manhattan.

This would be “counterproductive, further inflame what is happening on campus and attract thousands to our doors who would threaten our community,” she wrote in a message signed by other school leaders.

For some, the news was welcome. They saw it as a necessary course correction after Shafik bypassed university protocols when she first called in NYPD officers two weeks ago in hopes of quelling protests fueled by opposition to the war between Israel and Hamas.

For others, Shafik’s aversion to law enforcement intervention was disturbing at best. Some prominent alumni implored her to be more aggressive amid reports of Jewish students being targeted on campus. Immediately remove the pro-Palestinian camps, they urged in a letter signed by thousands, demanding she take tougher measures to secure the sites. If necessary, they said, call the police.

By Tuesday evening, the president’s opinion had changed.

New York City Police Department officers descended on campus en masse and arrested dozens of protesters for a second time. Police have seized an academic building where a group of students protesting the university’s ties to Israel had broken into and barricaded themselves the previous night. They smashed doors and windows, turning the interior of the building upside down, the school said.

“I know I speak for many members of our community when I say that this turn of events has filled me with deep sadness,” Shafik said in a message to students and staff on Wednesday. “I’m sorry we’ve reached this point.”

Latest news on the protests in Columbia: Riot police storm into building held by pro-Palestinian demonstrators

The circumstances that led to Shafik’s rapid change of heart are certainly not simplistic. Global scrutiny of Columbia’s government has only increased in recent weeks, fueled by the fallout from her testimony before Congress last month. Republicans and Democrats told her they were concerned that Columbia and other U.S. campuses are not doing enough to address anti-Semitism fueled by unrest in the Middle East.

While she was testifying in Washington, students set up camps in the middle of campus and refused to remove them until the university divested itself of the state of Israel. A day later, the police made more than a hundred arrests on the spot.

As the dust settled from the second police action, observers said two major factors appeared to have played a notable role in changing the dynamic in Columbia, which has become a touchstone for nationwide disagreement over the war between Israel and Hamas.

First, many alumni were clearly alarmed by what they saw. And so did the mayor of New York City.

Protests in Columbia, explained: How New York University became the epicenter of the controversy over the war between Israel and Hamas

Influential alumni insist that Shafik get the NYPD involved

In her first year on the job, Shafik has tried to walk the tightrope that every prominent college president faces: a need to appease influential alumni while appeasing faculty. Neither group is a monolith; both camps are divided by generational differences, and certain factions within each group have more influence on decision-making than others. Especially in Columbia, they don’t always agree with each other.

Some powerful donors — including Robert Kraft, the CEO of the New England Patriots — have recently increased their pressure on Shafik by withdrawing their support for the university over concerns about the safety of Jewish students and staff. Others have expressed frustration more broadly about her handling of campus security as final exams began and graduation ceremonies approached.

In an alumni letter published on Monday, Shafik was asked to raise the bar. Thousands of former students and current parents urged her to “remove illegal encampments” and “take swift and strong disciplinary action against students who engage in hate speech, threats and criminal behavior.”

In a Tuesday update of the same letter, many alumni urged Shafik to bring back the NYPD. Pro-Palestinian protesters, they wrote, had “crossed an indefensible line that went far beyond legitimate protest and into the realm of lawless mob violence.”

All that pressure undoubtedly influenced the political landscape Shafik had to assess, says Lincoln Mitchell, adjunct associate professor of political science at Columbia.

“If you upset an alumni base, you’re done,” he said.

Division over the NYPD’s presence on campus

Shafik’s first call to the NYPD didn’t seem to hurt her much with the people responsible for her job security. Last week, the university’s board of trustees issued a statement saying it largely approved of her tactics to defend the campus.

“The Columbia University Board of Trustees strongly supports President Shafik as she guides the university through this extremely challenging time,” the board said April 24.

Many teachers, on the other hand, were highly critical of the first round of arrests. The university senate, the school’s main decision-making body, passed a resolution two days later saying the move raised serious questions about its respect for shared governance.

“The presence of the NYPD in our neighborhood puts our entire community at risk,” a group of faculty leaders wrote in a news release as police officers took over the university again on Tuesday. “Armed police entering our campus endangers students and everyone else on campus.”

Although many faculty members have refrained from calling for Shafik’s resignation in recent weeks, Tuesday night’s arrests sparked new outrage. On Thursday, the chapter of the American Association of University Professors urged a vote of no confidence in its administration, calling it “the only way to begin rebuilding our shattered community.”

A large group of students now seems to want the university to take steps to distance itself from Israel. According to the school newspaper, more than 2,000 students voted in a divestment referendum that passed by a wide margin last week.

A crime-fighting mayor offers his help

Columbia administrators are also navigating the crisis during a distinct era in New York City politics.

Mayor Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, was elected in 2021 on an agenda focused on public safety. During his time in office, the notorious crime-fighting politician rolled out high-tech security robots in Times Square and applauded the state’s decision to have National Guardsmen patrol the subway.

Although he is a Democrat and a supporter of free speech, he has shown little patience for the university protests that have gripped Columbia and other New York City campuses in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, for example, he warned that the demonstrations that rocked the Ivy League school had been “co-opted by outside professional agitators” — a concept he has alluded to in the past when discussing the city’s civil unrest.

“It was about external actors hijacking peaceful protests and inciting students to escalate,” Adams said at a news conference Wednesday morning, though he provided limited evidence.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, accused the mayor of demonizing students who have been vocal in their opposition to the Israeli government.

“This is a mayor who too often acts as if the solution to all our problems lies with the police, whether it’s homelessness, mental illness or student protests,” she said. “That’s all part of the context that caused the disaster we saw in Columbia.”

Last weekend, Adams said he increased police presence around the Upper West Side campus. And he promised that the NYPD would be “ready to respond” if another request came.

A few days later that happened. At Shafik’s request, the NYPD will maintain a presence on the Columbia property until at least mid-May.

Zachary Schermele covers education and the latest news for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at [email protected]. Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.