Is Columbia funding its own occupation? Student organization policies suggest so

Many student groups who have organized the pro-Palestine encampments are official student organizations, often eligible for funding from the very administration they are disrupting.

Published: April 24, 2024 11:06pm

Updated: April 29, 2024 11:11pm

As the pro-Palestine protest movement has engulfed several prestigious universities over the past week, questions swirl about how these student groups are funding their occupations of centrally located student spaces.

Some members of congress want to probe pro-Palestine protest groups and are raising concerns about alleged funding from opaque sources. One member of Congress told Just the News on Monday he wants to find out if any money is coming from foreign sources. Congressmen Dan Goldman and Josh Gottheimer sent a letter on Monday imploring Columbia’s trustees to take action to end the encampment, which they say violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act — or else resign. 

There may be another way some of these student groups may be funding their operations: through the direct support of the universities themselves. In other words, these elite universities may be funding their own occupation.

A review of the organizations leading the most prominent protest at Columbia University reveal that nearly 120 student groups comprise the coalition currently protesting the Gaza war. These groups are part of a coalition called Columbia University Apartheid Divest.

At least 36 of these groups are listed in Columbia’s database of recognized student groups, indicating they are currently active. Because of their status, these groups are eligible for direct funding from Columbia through allocations of the student activity fee—which every student pays as part of their tuition and which goes towards programming costs for officially recognized student groups. These fees can cost as much as $623 per student per semester.

According to guidance provided by the Columbia engineering school, student groups are eligible for two funding types: allocation—which is provided as a lump sum at the beginning of the school year funded by student fees—and independent fundraising or revenue.

Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine is one of the groups that helped to organize and is participating in the encampment. The organization’s current status at the university is murky, but the group likely received funding from the administration in the past as a registered organization, provided the group filled out the proper applications. The group is also found in the Columbia database of official student organizations.

However, its status remains unclear as Columbia SJP and its coalition partner, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), were suspended from campus for the fall semester for allegedly violating campus protest rules.

“This decision was made after the two groups repeatedly violated University policies related to holding campus events, culminating in an unauthorized event,” Senior Executive Vice President Gerald Rosberg wrote in a statement in November.

Though the suspension was designated for the fall semester, in March both groups sued Columbia over what they argued was an “unlawful suspension.” The two groups were supported by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Palestine Legal. Until that case is decided it remains unclear if the group is currently recognized by the university, though its official page remains active on the Columbia website. JVP’s page also remains active.

Columbia did not respond to questions from Just the News about funding either group received in the past year allocated from the student activity fees. Columbia SJP could not be reached for comment and Columbia JVP did not respond to an email request for comment.

From Columbia, pro-Palestine encamped protests have spread widely to other elite U.S. universities, including Harvard, Yale, NYU, and MIT. These universities have responded with suspending protest groups and arresting students trespassing on university property without permission.

Columbia asked for the arrest of several of the protestors last week after university President Nemat Shafik requested the New York Police Department’s intervention. The action came the day after Shafik testified before the House Education and Workforce Committee about allegations of antisemitism on campus. She told the committee she has “absolutely no hesitation in enforcing our policies.”

One of the students arrested was Isra Hirsi, the daughter of progressive Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Michigan. Hirsi attended Barnard College at Columbia until she was suspended by the administration last Thursday.

So far, Columbia does not appear to have suspended any of the 36 student groups listed in its official database and which are members of the Columbia University Apartheid Divest coalition for participation in the protest, despite suspensions of individual students and arrests.

Instead, the university decided to cancel in-person classes Monday as the Jewish holiday of Passover began. The school also announced this week that classes would be a hybrid of live and virtual sessions for the rest of the semester because of the disruptions caused by the protests.

Some of the groups involved the university protests have previously organized broader demonstrations since the October 7 terrorist attacks against Israel and their funding remains obscured by left-wing grant-making organizations or donor pass-throughs.

Jewish Voice for Peace, whose affiliate helped organize the Columbia encampment and other demonstrations, also organized a protest in October after the U.S. Capitol which saw one office building temporarily overrun. The demonstration was part of a growing—and enduring—movement that has swept the country since Israel first invaded Gaza after the October 7 terrorist attacks.

Jewish Voice for Peace has a long history of anti-Israel activism and has found itself consistently aligned with pro-Palestine movements in the United States. The national organization portrays itself as a community for Jews “with justice at the center” and tells prospective members that “you are part of building a Jewishness and Jewish life beyond Zionism.”

Jewish Voice for Peace has been funded by left-aligned foundations and was founded by longtime progressive organizers. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund provided a $140,000, two-year grant to the organization. However, the organization makes none of its funding public and available on its website.

Students for Justice in Palestine also receives funding through an opaque arrangement with progressive donor group WESPAC—which stands for the Westchester Peace Action Committee. Any donations sent to the National Students for Justice in Palestine organization notify the donor that payments are processed through the “Wespac Foundation Inc.”

Because of this dark-money arrangement, donations to the national organization are shielded from public disclosure required of nonprofits. According to the Anti-Defamation League—an organization dedicated to fighting the defamation of the Jewish people—“as a fiscal sponsor WESPAC receives and administers donations on behalf of groups” and “keeps a percentage of the donation and gives the rest to the groups/projects that it fiscally sponsors.”

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