This didn’t have to happen.

Joe Howley is a professor at Columbia University. He teaches classics. And when the NYPD stormed campus earlier this week to kick protesters out of a building they had occupied, they stormed straight into his office. Howley has always known that the place where he works – Hamilton Hall – has a history. Students occupied it in 1968 to protest the Vietnam War and then again in 1985 to protest apartheid in South Africa.

Howley says he didn’t know the Hamilton Hall occupancy was coming this year. But he and a few other faculty members advising the students knew how heated things were getting. “On Monday the university escalated with the students. They have issued highly disciplinary threats in an attempt to get them off the lawn. They were very aggressive about it,” he said. “Then we started seeing students, including those who were not near the camp – but have a Palestinian surname – receiving suspension orders. So it is clear that the university is just being cowboy with the discipline here.”

He said he found it astonishing that the university left Hamilton Hall unsecured overnight. It’s like no one running the university has read a book about the history of protest movements on campuses, or on this campus in particular, which is wild because it’s very clear that our students have,” he said.

Howley says he was actually trying to prevent police from having to go in in the first place. “I spent most of the day working with a group of faculty members who we thought could have the confidence of the students, faculty members who were themselves former protesters here in the ’80s and ’90s, and provided leadership from the university to say, ‘Look, if you can let us back on campus, we can reach out to these students and try to build a bridge and start a dialogue.’ And we were just rejected and ignored by the university leadership.”

Then everything went down. First, a lot of cops showed up. Then they pulled into a small driveway to Howley’s office building and started dragging people out.

“Everything about this is just maddening, and none of this had to happen,” he said.

On Thursday’s episode of What Next, we joined the protesters for a look at a professor’s year – and how it changed him. Part of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is transcribed below.

Mary Harris: How did you hear that the students were going to set up a camp?

Joe Howley: I didn’t! I woke up and my phone was full of pictures of this encampment. And that was the day the university’s leadership stood before Congress.

What did you think?

I thought I probably should have seen this coming.

Did you think that was necessary at that moment?

There is a real sense in which I don’t trust my instincts about what is necessary for student activists because I am overly protective of them. A bit like with children, right? And I, as a faculty member, am inevitably an industrialist to some extent. So things that disrupt the operation of the institution, which I will inevitably have reservations about. And I really believe that students have different instincts about things like political and moral urgency. And as a professor, I have a responsibility to respect the difference in those instincts.

How did things change within the encampment as the Columbia protests gained more media and political attention? Initially the camp was there for a few days. The police came. They tore it down. It resurfaced almost immediately.

Yes. The first encampment, which was set up while our university leadership was in DC, lasted approximately 36 hours. University leaders called in the police before they even returned from DC. And that was a small, very organized, very concentrated encampment. While the officers were still serving coffee on one lawn, another group of students set up a second encampment, and it was immediately clear that this was much larger. It was more diverse. The students were really energized by the first and by the police repression. This police repression has raised the temperature in all kinds of unhelpful ways. We had all these solidarity protests outside the gates. They became a media spectacle. And I saw that the camp became more organized and disciplined.

While this is happening, there are negotiations between the protesters and the university, right?

I’m going to choose my words carefully here. It has not been my experience that when the university negotiates with student activists, they do so with excessive good faith. They generally treat the students with contempt and only take them seriously when forced to do so. What has happened in recent days is that the university has made a so-called final offer. The students declined because it wasn’t a great offer. The university then made a real final offer that was even worse, expecting the students to respond somehow. And then the university pulled the plug on the negotiations.

It was never clear to me how genuinely interested the university was in the negotiations. When the university says privately or publicly that certain things are not possible, are they talking about not possible according to the laws of physics, or are they talking about not possible according to the political will of the administrators? Because those are two very different things.

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Can we talk about the occupancy of Hamilton Hall? Earlier this week, students barricaded themselves inside at night. It was definitely an escalation. Did you think it was an appropriate form of protest?

I’ve made it very clear all along that I don’t think it’s very helpful for me to pass judgment on the tactics of student protesters. If the students say and do things that I personally don’t like, or that make me uncomfortable, or that I think are counterproductive, I will contact the students with whom I have a good relationship and say, “I wish you wouldn’t. do this song” or whatever, but I really value my ability to maintain a trusting relationship with both university leaders and with the students. And one way I maintain those relationships is by not letting anyone do anything. I share my opinion as a colleague and I listen.

I found the occupation incredibly dangerous. I thought it endangered all the students there, endangered everyone on campus because police action was the obvious response, and then endangered the faculty observers who had no idea what was going to happen and were actually stuck on campus. And also, I thought, Gosh, I shouldn’t have left those fries in my office trash can because I don’t know when I’ll go back in there and clean it up.

The university said it had no choice but to call police once students took over a building. It sounds like you think it was an inevitable choice, but do you think it was? No choice? Like, what if the president of Columbia came to the encampment and said, “Okay, let’s talk.” Would that work?

Members of Congress came to the encampment to talk to students, but we never saw the president of the university come down to talk to them in the weeks before the building was occupied. I can only dream of what would have happened if someone on the university side had actually made a good faith effort. The university said they had no choice. Look, I understand the institutional logic there. I understand it is a fire hazard. I understand that they had some pretty credible fears that people off campus might be involved. I also think that people with a lot of power like to say that they have no choice, right before they do something very harmful. And I thank God every day that I’m not running the university, but I would have liked to think that what we saw on Tuesday night wasn’t an option. I would have liked to think that all possible options would be exhausted before we did something like this That.