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

·5 mins

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 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. 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 a professor of history who teaches a class on free speech at the University of Pennsylvania.

One expert 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. 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. Northwestern President put out a statement expressing his horror at the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. In the same letter, he 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.

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

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.

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 an editor at the Brown Daily Herald.

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 to resign, writing he ‘capitulated to hatred and bigotry.’ A Republican from New York, who has spearheaded congressional hearings on antisemitism, called Northwestern students who demonstrated ‘self proclaimed terrorists’ in a posting on X, formerly 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 an expert.

For example, President 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,’ he 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,’ he wrote.