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Inside the Week That Shook Columbia University

Just after 2 p.m. last Wednesday, Nemat Shafik, the president of Columbia University, stepped out of an office building on Capitol Hill and into an idling black SUV.

She had just endured an intense grilling by a congressional committee investigating antisemitism on elite college campuses. Now, a fresh challenge was rapidly building back on her own turf, where pro-Palestinian student demonstrators had staked out an encampment dominating Columbia’s lawn.

For a university trying to reassure Congress that it was getting its campus under control, the timing could scarcely have been worse. With a narrow window to act, Dr. Shafik directed her car to a law firm near the White House, where she set up a makeshift command center.

The secretive deliberations that followed over 24 frantic hours have sent Columbia into a crisis over free speech and safety unlike any the campus has seen since 1968. The events also set off a chain reaction rattling campuses across the country, just as one of the most trying academic years in memory neared its end.

In theory, Dr. Shafik had a range of options to deal with the protests and protect Jewish students; in the moment, though, she saw little choice, according to three people who described the private discussions. Her testimony had pointed toward coming down hard on the protesters.

Despite brief attempts to negotiate with them and objections from key leaders on campus, Dr. Shafik ordered what she later conceded was an “extraordinary step.” She suspended the students and ordered New York City police in riot gear to arrest more than 100 activists who refused to leave on Thursday afternoon.

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