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Columbia U. President Faces Backlash over Handling of Pro-Palestine Protests

With Columbia University embroiled in protests and controversies marked by actions against students and professors for expressing pro-Palestinian views, the leadership of President Nemat (Minouche) Shafik is coming under question on multiple fronts.

Shafik, once lauded by Columbia University as a “tireless proponent of diversity and inclusion”, told a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives last week that the university had taken disciplinary action against 15 students and was investigating two professors. She also vowed that one visiting professor “will never teach at Columbia again”.  

These punitive measures were justified on the grounds of alleged involvement in “anti-Semitism”, a sweeping accusation often targeting individuals expressing support for Palestine or protesting Israeli violations in Gaza and the West Bank.

“Antisemitism … has no place on our campus, and I am committed to doing everything I can to confront it directly,” Shafik said in her opening statement to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce at a hearing on 17 April.

“Antisemitism … has no place on our campus, and I am committed to doing everything I can to confront it directly.”

Nemat (Minouche) Shafik, in testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce

Shafik assumed the presidency of Columbia University in July 2023, making history as the institution’s first female president. An economist by profession, she was born in Egypt and spent part of her childhood in the United States after her family relocated from Egypt when she was four years old. She is a former high-ranking official at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Bank of England, and has also served as president of the London School of Economics.

Concerns about Academic Freedom 

Shafik’s testimony on Capitol Hill deeply worried some supporters of academic freedom.

“We are witnessing a new era of McCarthyism where a House committee is using college presidents and professors for political theatre,” Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, told The New York Times. “They are pushing an agenda that will ultimately damage higher education and the robust exchanges of ideas it is founded upon.”

When lawmakers on the Republican-led committee grilled Shafik over whether she would remove one professor from an academic leadership position, she appeared to make a decision on the spot: “I think I would, yes.”

Advocates of faculty rights were also concerned that the president had disclosed disciplinary details, which are usually confidential, as part of her effort to persuade the committee that she was taking serious action to combat antisemitism at Columbia.

In nearly four hours of testimony before the committee, Shafik conceded that Columbia had initially been overwhelmed by protests. But she said its leaders now agreed that some protesters had used antisemitic language and that certain contested phrases—like “from the river to the sea”—might warrant discipline.

In bending toward House Republicans in Washington, Shafik may have further divided her own campus in New York’s Upper West Side. The same day she faced questions on Capitol Hill, students pitched tents and set up a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on the campus in violation of university demonstration policies. The following day, Shafik asked the New York City police to clear the camp, resulting in the arrests of more than 100 students. But students quicky erected a new camp on a lawn adjacent to the original one.

Activists reject the accusations of antisemitism and say they are speaking out for Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom have been killed by Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

Shafik has consistently upheld the university’s dedication to freedom of speech, yet she stressed that authorities “cannot condone the misuse of this right” when it endangers others.

Other Presidents Under Fire

Shafik’s remarks stood in stark contrast to the testimonies of the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before the same committee in December. When asked whether calls by students for the genocide of Jews would constitute harassment under the schools’ codes of conduct, the presidents of those universities appeared to hedge, igniting a controversy that contributed to the removal of the presidents of Penn and Harvard from their positions.

“We are witnessing a new era of McCarthyism where a House committee is using college presidents and professors for political theatre.”

Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors

Shafik, during her questioning four months later, told lawmakers that Columbia had suspended two student groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, for repeated breaches of the university’s policies on demonstrations. She also appeared more willing to denounce and take action against students and faculty for using phrases like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Some argue that this phrase implies the elimination of the state of Israel, while its supporters view it as an aspirational call for Palestinian liberation. 

“We have some disciplinary cases ongoing around that language,” she said. “We have specified that those kinds of chants should be restricted in terms of where they happen.”

She noted that Columbia has about 4,700 faculty members and vowed that there would be “consequences” for employees who “make remarks that cross the line in terms of antisemitism.”

So far, Shafik said, five faculty members had been removed from the classroom or dismissed for comments stemming from the Israel-Hamas war. 

She also said that the university was investigating Joseph Massad, a professor of Middle Eastern studies, who used the word “awesome” to describe the  Hamas-led attacks in Israel on 7 October 2023 that kindled the current war. Israel says nearly 1,200 people died in those attacks.

Massad has said he is unaware of any investigation against him. He was one of three professors Shafik mentioned by name. The others were Katherine Franke, a professor of law, and Mohamed Abdou, a visiting scholar who drew ire for showing support for Hamas on social media. Shafik said Abdou “is grading his students’ papers and will never teach at Columbia again”.

Several members of the House committee singled out Massad for scorn, because of his description of the Hamas attacks on Israel as “awesome” and “innovative” in an article published in The Electronic Intifada on 8 October.

Shafik promised the committee that Massad would be removed from his position as chair of Columbia’s Academic Review Committee, which assesses programme quality and effectiveness, among other duties. (Massad has said he was scheduled to rotate out of the chairmanship at the end of this semester.) Shafik also indicated Massad might be fired even though his position is tenured.

Politics on the Committee

Democrats on the House committee uniformly denounced antisemitism, but repeatedly accused Republicans of trying to weaponise a fraught moment for elite universities in an attempt to undermine them over longstanding political differences.

But Democrats also had tough questions for Shafik. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, one of only two Muslim women in Congress, asked what Columbia was doing to help students whose names were doxxed over their activism for the Palestinian cause or had faced anti-Arab sentiment.

Crackdown on Protests

Complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobia have been on the rise at the New York campus of 35,000 students, prompting the school to adopt new limits on demonstrations. Protests can be held only on weekdays at certain times and locations, with advance notice to school officials.

Some civil-rights groups, students and faculty say the policy curbs free expression. But Shafik cited it as evidence that Columbia is serious about protecting students, saying 15 students have been suspended and six are on probation for violating the policy.

The crackdown on the Gaza Solidarity Encampment came one day after Shafik’s testimony on Capitol Hill. Police officers swept through the campus, arresting at least 108 protesters and discarding the tents as students jeered them. Pro-Palestinian students insisted they would would not leave until the university met their demands, including that the school divest from businesses with ties to Israel. 

As officers arrested protesters and dismantled the encampment, a large crowd shouted “Shame!” Some vowed that their spirits would not be shattered. “They can threaten us all they want with the police, but at the end of the day, it’s only going to lead to more mobilisation,” Maryam Alwan, a pro-Palestinian organiser on campus, said.

“Her [Shafik’s] response to this crisis epitomised a profound failure in academic and administrative leadership. Instead of calling for security measures against students, she should have considered resigning.”

Alia El-Mahdi, a former dean of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University

In a message to the university community, Shafik said: “I took this extraordinary step because these are extraordinary circumstances. The individuals who established the encampment violated a long list of rules and policies. … I regret that all of these attempts to resolve the situation were rejected by the students involved. As a result, NYPD officers are now on campus and the process of clearing the encampment is underway.”

She added: “Columbia is committed to academic freedom and to the opportunity for students and faculty to engage in political expression—within established rules and with respect for the safety of all. The policies we have in place around demonstrations are in place to support both the right to expression and the safety and functioning of our university.”

‘A Profound Failure’

Shafik’s stance has come under strong criticism within academic and human rights circles on social media.

“The university president’s role is to advocate for the students, faculty, and staff, and to enhance the university’s standing. These are universal objectives for any university’s stakeholders,” Alia El-Mahdi, a former dean of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, told Al-Fanar Media.

“However, in the case of Nemat Shafik, the president of Columbia University, her response to this crisis epitomised a profound failure in academic and administrative leadership. Instead of calling for security measures against students, she should have considered resigning.”

“We have some disciplinary cases ongoing around that language [phrases like ‘From the river to the sea’]. We have specified that those kinds of chants should be restricted in terms of where they happen.”

Nemat (Minouche) Shafik, in testimony to the House committee

El-Mahdi added: “The handling of the Columbia University crisis fell short of effective academic governance; it showcased a failure in educational institution management. The use of the slogan ‘From the river to the sea’ as a pretext against students and faculty is fundamentally a Zionist slogan, and I am dismayed by what unfolded during the session. The U.S. House of Representatives committee noted a breakdown in dialogue. This incident highlighted the lack of guiding principles and a deficiency in recognising the university president’s role as a political figure that requires prudent handling.”

When asked about the impact of the upheaval in American universities over pro-Palestine protests and what this means for academic freedom, El-Mahdi said: “American universities generally have academic freedom, but when it comes to the Palestinian question, it becomes highly politicised and is often off-limits for discussion due to funding from pro-Israel organisations.”

El-Mahdi noted the presence of diverse opinions among students and professors on the Palestinian issue but criticised the apparent double standards in handling these discussions.

She concluded by stating, “I would have preferred Nemat Shafik to inquire of the U.S. House of Representatives members: Why the disparity in treatment between different opinions? Why the selective tolerance for Israel’s supporters? This crisis exposes glaring double standards.”

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