Columbia removes three administrators in texting scandal

Ivy League campus, however, keeps in place the dean who also participated, boosting concerns about its sincerity amid sustained political threat

July 9, 2024
Alma Mater statue at Columbia University
Source: iStock/Steve Rosenbach

Columbia University has removed three senior administrators caught texting criticisms of a campus event that was meant to challenge antisemitism, while leaving in place the higher-ranking dean who was part of the exchange.

The three administrators will not return to their jobs, but also were not fired, and will remain on leave while the university further considers their situation.

The fourth texting participant, Josef Sorett, the dean of Columbia College – the university’s main home for undergraduate teaching – will be kept in place to help “make sure nothing like this ever happens again”, the university’s provost, Angela Olinto, said in a note to the campus community.

That logic, however, has been encountering significant resistance. More than 1,500 people – describing themselves as alumni, students, faculty, staff, parents, friends and supporters – have signed a petition to Columbia’s leadership demanding the removal of all four administrators.

“The dean is the public face of Columbia College, its culture carrier, who must set the ethical and moral standard of the college,” the petitioners say.

The chair of the education committee in the US House of Representatives, Virginia Foxx, also made clear her dissatisfaction with the university’s latest move in the case.

“To put it simply: not enough,” Ms Foxx said. “Students deserve better, and Columbia is far from off the hook.”

The texting occurred in May during a campus discussion panel, part of a series of reunion weekend events, where university officials and others discussed Jewish life on campus following the nationwide series of student protests this past semester over Palestinian civilians being killed by Israeli military bombardments in Gaza.

Columbia became the inspiration for the nationwide adoption of encampment-style protests after its president was chastised by Ms Foxx and her committee’s Republicans for being too tolerant of her own student demonstrators, and the university responded by asking New York City police to arrest them.

The Republicans embraced the idea of defending Jewish students at Columbia and other US campuses – despite their party’s mixed record on antisemitism – as part of their longer-running effort to challenge the legitimacy of US colleges and universities.

In that context, the texting scandal handed the Republicans further ammunition to press their argument that US higher education had lost its way. During the antisemitism panel discussion, a participant seated behind Susan Chang-Kim, the university’s vice-dean and chief administrative officer, photographed images of her phone displaying text exchanges she was having with Professor Sorett and two others – Cristen Kromm, the dean of undergraduate student life, and Matthew Patashnick, the associate dean for student intervention and family engagement – mocking some of the panel participants.

Columbia initially reacted by suspending the three administrators. In announcing their removal from their jobs, Professor Olinto and Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, each issued statements condemning the text exchanges and promising the university would learn from it. “Dean Sorett and I will work together to mend relationships, repair trust, and rebuild accountability,” Professor Olinto said in her response.

Professor Sorett, in his own statement, said he was “deeply sorry that this happened in a community that I lead, and that I was part of any of the exchanges”, before adding: “I continue to learn from this experience and understand the impact that my texts, as well as those between my staff, have had on our community.”

The community petitioners, however, said that Professor Sorett cannot continue in his role. “Sorett’s actions,” they write, “give an explicit endorsement to a culture of antisemitism and demonstrate his flawed judgement, lack of character, and inability to lead at a critical time for Columbia.”

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