Columbia president grilled by lawmakers on Gaza protest response

After previous hearing led to ousting of Harvard and Penn leaders, Baroness Shafik calls for understanding but struggles to define response

April 17, 2024
Minouche Shafik - Top 10 universities led by women

Columbia University president Baroness Shafik, in a high-stakes appearance before the US Congress, urged lawmakers to understand that her institution is engaged in a complicated battle to protect free speech while also protecting students from undue harassment.

Lady Shafik, following in the fraught footsteps of three other presidents of elite universities who appeared before the US House education committee in December, offered several examples where her institution has punished students and faculty for publicly expressing anti-Israeli sentiments.

Lady Shafik tried repeatedly during the hearing to emphasise positive steps her university has been taking to promote cross-cultural understanding, including the promotion of campus discussions through its Dialogue Across Difference programme. “We can’t let political dialogue cross over into hate,” she told the lawmakers.

Yet the Columbia leader, with weeks to prepare for a reprise of the tactics used against her Ivy League counterparts, also stumbled repeatedly at her Capitol Hill showdown on the details of how her administration has policed speech deemed unduly threatening.

The most high-profile example involved the case of Joseph Massad, a tenured professor of modern Arab politics at Columbia, who called the October attack by Palestinian militants against Israeli civilians “incredible” and “awesome”. Tens of thousands of people signed a student petition demanding his removal, while hundreds of others joined a letter backing him.

Asked repeatedly about Professor Massad by members of the House education committee during their nearly four-hour hearing, Lady Shafik made several attempts at agreeing to review the matter before finally promising that she would ensure that he is removed from his position as chair of the academic review committee for Columbia’s School of Arts and Sciences.

Pressed by Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, after her colleagues asked versions of the same question about the status of Professor Massad’s chairmanship, the Columbia president said, “I need to confirm that.” Prodded again, as to whether she could commit to his removal, Lady Shafik shrugged a few times, said, “I think that would be”, paused again, and said, “Yes – let me come back with yes.”

Republican US lawmakers have elevated the idea of supporting the Israeli government over Palestinians – and forbidding public expressions to the contrary – as a key to ending what they regard as an excessive accumulation of leftist political views on US college campuses.

After the December hearing before the same committee, the heads of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania endured sustained criticism from lawmakers and donors for their lack of clear responses about antisemitism, and eventually resigned their presidencies.

A Columbia spokesperson did not respond to questions about why the institution’s president – in a high-profile personnel matter, with weeks of preparation time – was left to essentially decide Professor Massad’s fate on the spot. The spokesperson instead reiterated his removal from the academic review committee, ahead of a wider investigation of his actions.

Lady Shafik had been invited to the December hearing, along with the presidents of Harvard, Penn and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – all women early in their presidencies – and declined at the time because she had plans to attend the United Nations climate conference in Dubai. The committee’s Republican leadership, which has the legal power to compel testimony, made clear it would not accept a refusal this time.

US university leaders have been struggling to confront a tide of antisemitism in recent years, most notably dating back to the August 2017 white supremacist march near the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. That event was described by its organisers as a Unite the Right rally, and was heavily populated by backers of Donald Trump, then the US president, who spoke approvingly of its participants.

Republicans, however, have worked since the Palestinian attack last October near Gaza to suggest that their support for the conservative Israeli government reflects a fundamentally pro-Jewish orientation that’s often dismissed in academia.

That’s left academic experts and university leaders acknowledging that they see antisemitism on their campuses, but fear that conservative lawmakers and philanthropists are using the moment to dictate the terms of academic content and campus debate.

Ahead of the hearing, Columbia University outlined a series of actions it was taking against students and faculty expressing pro-Palestinian sentiments. They include suspending two student groups – Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace – that held an unauthorised demonstration. “Student misconduct cases are far outpacing last year,” Lady Shafik assured the lawmakers.

The committee’s chairperson, Virginia Foxx, a Republican of North Carolina, said she was not impressed, suggesting that Columbia’s penalties too often were lax. “The students don’t seem to be afraid,” she complained.

The top-ranking Democrat on the House education committee, Bobby Scott of Virginia, began the hearing by playing video of the Charlottesville rally and questioning the motivations for Republicans bemoaning campus antisemitism now but not addressing it then.

“The fact is that college campuses are polarised, as is our society,” Mr Scott said. “And we have witnessed a disturbing rise in incidents not only of antisemitism but also Islamophobia, racism, homophobia and other forms of hate.”

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Reader's comments (2)

How can anyone using a silly title like "Lady" lead in 2024? This sort of honorific has not place in the modern world and is given for networking up to ceremonial leader role rather than for innvoation and great science and reserach. LSE generally has a elitist networking culture and even its journals only have editors via inviation. She is a really bad choice for Columbia: not one shoudl be in such a leadership role more than once and they ought not be paid more than a professor and ought to rent their own home like others. The higher up one goes in an organisation the less they do; it is just non-stop free travel and a bit of hand waving. Lets get rid of presidential and monarchial leadership models in Universities and replace them with collective committees of professors
I am amazed Shafik Minouche can be a leader of LSE and now Columbia- she is NOT a leading economist as can be seen by her scholar google count which is extremely low: She is vastly overpaid but seems to have very good connections.