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Campus Chronicles: Inside the Pro-Palestine Encampment at Columbia with Professor Joseph Howley

YI: The pro-Palestine protests on campus are making headlines around the world. Have you seen all the cameras and microphones on campus?

BARONIO: It’s hard to miss! But people forget: protests at American universities have always been a way for students to express their constitutional rights. I spoke to professor of Classics, Joseph Howley here at Columbia. He's been supporting student protestors through the FSJP since the fall semester. That's the Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine group. He's been working with students in the encampment

HOWLEY This week FSJP folks have been doing de-escalation duty outside the camp, helping the students to make sure everything stays calm and safe. We're just interested in finding various ways to protect the students. Which also involves faculty advocacy and faculty governance to protect rights of free expression and academic freedom on campus 

BARONIO Why an encampment as a protest? 

HOWLEY Why not? We've had encampments on university campuses for decades now. It is a time honored tradition. It's also a very powerful tactic. No one is being threatened here. Nothing is being obstructed,  except maybe graduation.

Um, that gives the students a space to engage in political education, to express themselves, to reach out to other students, to get their message out. Um, and it also gives them, uh, Uh, a certain amount of very serious but, you know, non violent leverage in a deeply asymmetrical situation where the university has for years refused to listen to the will of the student body on this issue.

BARONIO What do you think will happen at the end of the semester?

HOWLEY  Well, I think we're all praying for a really calm end to the semester. I think the university has demonstrated incredibly bad judgment thus far. Um, the only thing that the university knows how to do is to escalate and provoke with the student protestors and to bow to external political pressure.

Um, and this is a really bad cycle that the university leadership has gotten into. But I think that university leadership is also hearing loudly and clearly from faculty right now that the application of police force is completely unacceptable and I hope that they will see that the students are offering them a very feasible way out of this.

The students demands are reasonable, the student negotiators are being very patient, even though I suspect the university may not be negotiating in good faith. And I'm just hoping that the university will, you know, look at the basic cost benefit  equation in front of them and see that they have the power to stop this anytime.

BARONIO What does the resolution look like? 

HOWLEY  Well, the students have, uh, I think some pretty reasonable demands. I don't know exactly what's on the negotiating table right now, but their basic demands are amnesty for politicized disciplinary measures. I think that's very easy to do. Disclosure of investments, that's very easy to do.

And I think that the university has some entanglements with the Israeli occupation and apartheid that would be pretty easy, um, to put on the table for debate, right? So, uh,  Why, why can't the university hold a binding referendum of the entire student body about divestment? That seems to me very easy to do.

BARONIO Last question, what will it take for students to regain trust in the university after this? 

HOWLEY You know, this is a question that, uh, senior university leaders have been asking me in recent days, and I think that there is a simple answer with two parts. The university must seriously and sincerely and in good faith demonstrate to students That they are members of the community, and they can be heard and trusted and empowered as such, and that  the university will protect them from bad faith and hostile political actors beyond the campus.

Neither of those things is happening right now. That's what's driving this whole movement, aside from the students sincere concern about Israel Palestine. And if the university can simply demonstrate to everyone that they are concerned about the students, that they recognize the students as part of this community, rather than antagonists, if they can convince the students that their voice is being heard and convince the students that they will be protected by the university then I think we are well on our way to a resolution.

BARONIO Thank you so much for your time. 

HOWLEY Thank you.

BACK ID, BARONIO: That was my conversation with Joseph Howley, Professor of Classics here at Columbia University. He is also a member of Faculty and Staff of Justice in Palestine.


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