Columbia’s President, Nemat Shafik, to Testify at Antisemitism Hearing

Columbia’s President, Nemat Shafik, to Testify at Antisemitism Hearing

NYT > Top Stories

2024-04-16 02:00:10

Four months after an explosive congressional hearing on antisemitism precipitated the resignations of two Ivy League presidentsanother university president is about to step to the hot seat.

On Wednesday, Columbia’s president, Nemat Shafikwill testify about antisemitism before the same House committee that grilled the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When asked a question about whether calling for the genocide of Jews would break their universities’ rules, the presidents responded with lawyerly answers that sparked a spiraling backlash.

The December hearing was a political showcase for Elise Stefanik, a New York lawmaker who is the No. 4 Republican in the House and whose questions elicited the most damaging testimony. Afterward, Ms. Stefanik counted the resignations of the president of the University of Pennsylvania, M. Elizabeth Magill, and Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard, as personal wins.

“I will always deliver results,” Ms. Stefanik, a Harvard alumna and a prospective vice-presidential pick for Donald Trump, said after Dr. Gay’s resignation.

Dr. Gay, who also faced plagiarism allegations, said she had resignedin part, to “deny demagogues the opportunity to further weaponize my presidency.”

This hearing may be different, because Dr. Shafik and Columbia University already know many of the questions they will face and have had months to prepare.

Since the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, Columbia has made substantial — and some say heavy-handed — efforts to manage campus protests and pro-Palestinian student organizing. Now, Dr. Shafik’s college president peers, along with students, faculty and alumni across the political spectrum, will be watching to see whether those efforts will change her reception.

The hearing may also serve as a weather vane indicating how politics surrounding campus protest have shifted in the last six months. Colleges across the country, including Columbia, have been tightening rules and increasing enforcement against campus protests and expression.

Those moves have caused deep concern among faculty members monitoring academic freedom.

“If you don’t have vigorous debate on campus, if you don’t permit the expression of views that make you uncomfortable, do you have a university anymore?” said Sheldon Pollock, a professor on the executive committee of the American Association of University Professors at Columbia.

During the earlier hearing, some Republicans homed in on the double standards they argue have infected Ivy League campuses, where conservative thinkers have at times faced sanctions or been barred from speaking, even as protest chants like “globalize the intifada” that many Jews find hurtful have been allowed.

That hearing also made clear that it was not enough to give lawyerly answers about what is permitted speech on campus. Private universities have the power to make their own rules about what can and cannot be said, and they have used that power in the past to shape a safe and inclusive community for other groups.

The presidents “went into that session beautifully prepared to discuss the really hard constitutional questions about whether a speech about a Jewish genocide is protected or not under the First Amendment,” said Burt Neuborne, a civil liberties lawyer at New York University and the founding legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice, about the December hearing.

“But wasn’t the question,” he added. “The question was: What do you want to do on your campus? If you have the power to build your campus, what kind of a campus do you want to build?”

Supporters of Dr. Shafik, who goes by her nickname, Minouche, are hoping she will benefit from her decades of experience with diplomacy in high-profile settings. She is an economist who, before joining Columbia last summer, held senior leadership roles at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England and was president of the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has already put on the record a direct answer to the question that tripped up the other presidents: whether calling for the genocide of Jews would break university rules.

“Calls for genocide against the Jewish community or any other group are abhorrent, inconsistent with our values and against our rules,” the Columbia website now states. “Incitement to violence against members of our community will not be tolerated.”

But the delay — Dr. Shafik missed the last hearing because of a scheduling conflict — also brings disadvantages. The last several months at Columbia have been marked with protests, social media spats, lawsuits and news coverage of the university’s response, all for the House committee to critique. Columbia has been asked to submit voluminous documentation about how it has responded to antisemitism allegations since 2021.

Some Jewish students say being on campus since Oct. 7 has been deeply uncomfortable. One Jewish student was hit with a stick after putting up posters of Israeli hostages, in an incident that led to an arrest. Some say they have been cursed at for being Jewish. Others describe more subtle harms, such as feeling socially excluded from clubs, or being repeatedly asked about their position on Israel.

Since Oct. 7, “the acceptance of antisemitism and the acceptance of speaking against Jewish people because of their connection to Israel has become more prevalent throughout campus and become more acceptable throughout campus,” said Rebecca Massela sophomore and reporter for The Columbia Spectator.

In response, Columbia and its sister school, Barnard, have sought to rein in pro-Palestinian student activism, but that has led to allegations that they are repressing free speech. The university suspended two pro-Palestinian student groups after they repeatedly held unauthorized protests.

Columbia says many pro-Palestinian students have been doxxedtheir identities publicized on the internet and displayed on a truck circling campus.

At least 160 students have had some kind of disciplinary action started against them in connection with campus events since Oct. 7, according to Columbia. In early April, Columbia administrators suspended five students it accused of involvement in an unauthorized student event, Resistance 101at which the invited speakers spoke openly in support of Hamas and other U.S.-designated terrorist organizations.

“There is nothing wrong with being a member of Hamas, being a leader of Hamas, being a fighter in Hamas,” Charlotte Kates, the international coordinator of the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, told attendees, according to a video posted on social media.

The students, who are being evicted from university housing, said that they had not yet had a chance to defend themselves.

“It’s not a coincidence that this is happening right before Minouche Shafik has to appear before Congress,” said Aidan Parisi, 27, a suspended student from the School of Social Work. He is still fighting his eviction, which would mean finding housing that would accept his emotional support rabbit. “Unfortunately, she is willing to risk our housing, and overall well-being, for her career.”

Dr. Shafik has defended her increasingly tough approach.

“I did not become a university president to punish students,” she said in a statement. “At the same time, actions like this on our campus must have consequences.”

She added: “I want to make clear that it is absolutely unacceptable for any member of this community to promote the use of terror or violence.”

Columbia’s situation is especially fraught. About 20 percent of its undergraduates are Jewish, according to estimates by Hillela national Jewish campus organization, compared with 10 percent at Harvard and 6 percent at M.I.T.

Columbia also attracts many Israeli students and staff, with a dual degree program with Tel Aviv University and an academic center in Tel Aviv.

At the same time, Columbia is a hub for Palestinian scholarship, with more than two dozen faculty members affiliated with its Center for Palestine Studiesincluding the influential historian Rashid Khalidi. Columbia was also the academic home of one of the most prominent Palestinian American intellectuals, Edward Said, who died in 2003.

These factors spilled into view when, after Oct. 7, hundreds of students began demonstrating against Zionism and in favor of a free Palestine, next to a smaller contingent of pro-Israel counterprotesters who held up Israeli flags and pictures of hostages.

Facing lawsuits and a federal civil rights investigation into antisemitism on campus, Columbia debuted a new interim demonstration policy in February. Protests can now happen only on weekday afternoons in certain “demonstration areas,” and not next to the Alma Mater statue, a potent symbol of the university. The school has also formed an antisemitism task force, whose first report endorsed the new protest policies.

While these moves have reduced the number of protests, pro-Palestinian organizers are still active. An unauthorized but peaceful protest against Israeli attacks in Gaza took place in early April with well over 100 students marching.

The next day, Dr. Shafik said that the school would identify the participants, “and they will face discipline under our policies.”

Sharon Otterman
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