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Columbia University Could See a Tuition Strike If It Doesn’t Divest From Israel

If organizers can confirm 1,000 strikers, they will call for an official strike before the spring 2024 tuition deadline.

People gather to protest the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) at Columbia University on November 20, 2023, in New York City.

As part of their organizing efforts against Israeli apartheid, Columbia University student groups, including Barnard-Columbia Abolition Collective, Student-Worker Solidarity, and Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America announced a tuition strike for the spring 2024 semester.

The coalition of student groups is calling for the “university to refuse to invest in ethnic cleansing and genocide abroad” and for their tuition dollars to stop funding apartheid. ​​Students are also demanding a binding referendum that would require Columbia to immediately divest from the occupation State of Israel if the majority votes are in favor of doing so. This approach aligns with student referendums in 2018 at Barnard and 2020 at Columbia College in which 64.3% and 61% of students, respectively, voted in favor of their colleges divesting from economic ties to Israel. However, neither college actually moved forward with divestment.

Students are also calling for a change in how policing is carried out on the Columbia campus. Specifically, the student groups are demanding that the university no longer rely on the New York City Police Department (NYPD) for crowd control and protest support. Materials posted online by the organizing groups further elaborate that “intense policing and surveillance under the guise of improving campus safety during Pro-Palestine demonstrations has only served to make students feel unsafe, and has even led to students being harassed by officers.”

Columbia student Lexy Pryor is an organizer and member of the three groups behind the strike. She explained that the goal of the campaign is to stop the flow of money from students to the university.

“The issue of divestment relates directly to where our money goes as students paying tuition,” Pryor said. “We really wanted to work on stopping that flow of money and also making sure our money gets rerouted into issues that the student body cares about.”

The organizing team is currently assessing the student body’s willingness to strike. If the coalition can confirm 1,000 strikers that represent 10% of tuition-payers, they will call for an official strike before the spring 2024 tuition deadline on Jan. 26.

At a town hall regarding the strike, organizers detailed plans for helping students appeal a $150 late fee that the university tacks on to their tuition bill when it’s not paid on time, as well as a mutual aid program that will help students who can not get the late fee waived. Organizers also plan to negotiate waiving late fees as a condition of the strike ending. Currently, the mutual aid fund has raised $1,500, according to Pryor.

The organizers are working to educate international students and graduating seniors about the risks associated with participating in the strike. Organizers are also encouraging Barnard students not to participate in the strike, citing the university’s stricter policies. For example, late fees at Barnard can be hundreds of dollars, and late payments can trigger loss of Barnard housing and even disenrollment.

Layla, who is using a pseudonym for fear of further retribution, plans to participate in the tuition strike at Columbia. The student told Prism the decision is a personal one. Her mother is from a village in Lebanon that was occupied by Israel.

“I’ve seen how evil the occupation can be, how deadly it can be, how much of a threat it really is,” Layla said. “When I look at Palestinians, it makes me so sad because they’re my neighbors.”

Layla went to law school to be a human rights lawyer and she said that anyone who is concerned about apartheid, occupation, or genocide “has to be concerned about Palestine.”

For her participation in a protest, Layla is facing a disciplinary action meeting later this month, which is why she does not want to use her real name. However, the meeting has not discouraged her from planning to move ahead with the tuition strike. She thinks that while protests and other actions have successfully made noise and received attention, she is unsure of the effect these efforts have had on the administration.

“The only thing they seem to care about is money,” she said. “This is a grassroots way to hit them where it hurts by holding back the money.”

During the spring 2021 semester, students at Columbia staged another tuition strike, in conjunction with the graduate student strike, demanding Columbia lower its tuition and increase financial aid, along with other demands. In that strike, more than 1,000 students withheld payments, and they successfully won the university’s assurance it would divest from fossil fuel companies.

The organizers behind this year’s spring tuition strike have also released a guide for students to use when talking to their parents about the strike. According to the guide, in 2021 the university did not take legal action against tuition strikers, and Columbia waived the students’ late payment fees. They are expecting the same this year when students demand the university’s divestment from Israel.

Currently about 360 students from affiliated schools at Columbia have indicated they will strike, and there are 1,200 students, parents, alums, and community members from all schools who have indicated that they will withhold donations, according to comments made by Pryor at a Jan. 6 town hall.

Columbia University did not respond to Prism’s request for comment by publication time.

While it’s still unclear if the tuition strike will be formally called, Pryor said the coalition of student groups plans to keep organizing against Israeli apartheid by hosting political education events and doing coalition work with Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD). Students are also observing a week of action until Jan. 19 focused on opportunities to take action in support of Palestinian liberation.

“I think times are changing because everything is accessible at our fingertips. We can see all this happening through our phone screens,” Layla said. “And so that obviously contributes to the urgency to do something that I know is risky because people are literally dying. The least I can do is strike my tuition.”

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