Columbia Coincidentally Rewrites Disciplinary Rules Just in Time to Screw Over Student Protesters

Just as summer vacation is getting underway, students at Columbia University in New York are left dealing with a raft of looming disciplinary charges from their participation in campus protests against Israel’s war in Gaza. But some students at the school said 11th-hour changes to disciplinary procedures are making it harder for students to defend themselves.

On Wednesday night, a group of Columbia Law students wrote a 32-page letter addressed to Columbia administrators that accused the university of imposing “egregious and draconian restrictions on the already non-existent due process protections.”

“Over the past year, we’ve seen Columbia really weaponize its disciplinary process against students speaking out for Palestinian human rights.”

The letter charges the school with letting a newly created office impose unprecedented rules that infringe upon student protections, including by preventing students from having legal or personal supporters during hearings, and imposing arbitrary time limits on when they can communicate with those supporters. 

“Over the past year, we’ve seen Columbia really weaponize its disciplinary process against students speaking out for Palestinian human rights,” Bassam Khawaja, a lecturer at Columbia Law School, told The Intercept. “And unlike police arrests, this process happens in virtual silence, but carries significant consequences for their academic standing and future careers. It’s hard to see this wildly disproportionate response as anything other than an attempt to chill speech on this issue.”

Some of the process changes, the law student letter said, came in a May 29 email received by students on Wednesday — one day before they were set to face disciplinary hearings for being suspected of posting flyers accusing the school’s board of complicity in genocide. The email was sent out by the school’s Center for Student Success and Intervention, an office formed in 2022.

While the latest apparent rule changes came just hours before hearings were set to take place, the hearings have now been indefinitely postponed, according to campus sources. (Columbia declined to comment.)

Almost as quickly as the protest movement emerged at Columbia, the school was accused of making ad hoc changes to longstanding policies in order to crack down on demonstrators. The tactic of shifting polities to crack down on protests — one used as far back as the attacks on the University of California, Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the 1960s — has since spread to other colleges across the country.

Limiting Advocacy

The May 29 CSSI message said that if students recruited a supporting person to accompany them to their hearings, accommodations could be made for them “outside of the hearing location or zoom breakout room,” with a five-minute break at the midpoint of hearings to consult with advocates. (CSSI did not respond to a request for comment.)

The law students raising the alarm about the message wrote, “No CSSI or University policy or precedent supports the prohibition of faculty advisors, deprivation of legal counsel, or arbitrary time limits on consultation with support persons.”

The letter also said the May 29 CSSI message required written statements to be submitted 24 hours before hearings, whereas CSSI’s own policies say statements can be submitted at or immediately after hearings. 

The law school students’ efforts come as faculty, too, feel shut out from the administration’s decision-making. 

“All of these universities are contracting out with these massive, big legal firms, both for the hearings and their codes. Everything is being funneled through Big Law,” said Shayoni Mitra, a professor at Barnard College, the women’s school at Columbia. “But on the student side of it, we’re really seeing law students and public defense offices — and that’s the only possible counterweight to this massive influx of Big Law into higher ed.”

Patchwork of Differing Policies

The new disciplinary policies appear to be in contradiction not only with broader university policy and due process principles, but also CSSI’s own precedents, the law school students alleged. 

The school is already dealing with a patchwork of regulations intertwined with its history. The school’s long standing Rules of University Conduct were first put in place after student protests rocked the campus in the 1960s. In 2022, however, CSSI was introduced as an apparent reimagination of student conduct processes, its mission laden with 21st-century buzzwords like “holistic well-being” and creating “empathetic and trauma-informed practices.”

Columbia’s Rules of University Conduct, for example, note that a student can be accompanied to any meeting or hearing related to an incident of misconduct by a supporter of their choice, allowing for attorneys.

CSSI’s own policies, however, are more restrictive, allowing only a student’s undergraduate advising dean or a designated administrator as an adviser at hearings. (CSSI’s May 29 letter contradicts this restrictive policy on hearing support for students.)

Barnard has policy discrepancies with both the Rules of University Conduct and CSSI — with its own rules having changed on key issues of student supporters since last fall.

When the crackdowns came against the Gaza protests, some students questioned CSSI’s jurisdiction, with the university Senate voting 40-0, with five abstentions, calling in May to halt disciplinary proceedings until the school’s general counsel clarified CSSI’s jurisdiction. No clarification from the university has been forthcoming.

“It is not lost on us that we are begging the University to follow its own rules and procedures that have existed since 1968,” the law school students wrote in their letter, “while Israel and the United States are currently bombing Rafah in blatant violation of international and US law.”

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