US House speaker calls for ousting of Columbia president

Top congressional Republican comes to New York City to ally himself with conservatives attacking free speech on college campuses

April 24, 2024
Alma Mater statue by Daniel Chester French in front of students sitting on the Low Library steps on Columbia University's main campus
Source: iStock/MDoculus

The speaker of the US House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, has jumped into the nationwide debate over campus free speech, calling for the resignation of the Columbia University president, Baroness Shafik, because she has not done enough to stop pro-Palestinian protests.

Before heading to Columbia with other Republican lawmakers to publicise his position, the speaker called the Columbia president “a very weak, inept leader” whose administration “cannot even guarantee the safety of Jewish students”.

“They are expected to run for their lives and stay home from class? It’s maddening,” Mr Johnson said in a radio interview with the right-wing commentator Hugh Hewitt.

The moment marked yet another escalation in the campaign by US conservatives to use campus protests over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to weaken academic freedom and university autonomy across the country.

The effort has been heavily promoted by Republican members of the education committee of the US House, who subjected the Columbia president to hostile questioning last week after a similar hearing in December led to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

The Columbia president repeatedly stumbled under the pressure of the hearing, agreeing on the spot to demands from the lawmakers that she punish faculty and students for expressing support for Palestinians. The Palestinian attack in October killed some 1,200 people in Israel, while subsequent Israeli military attacks have killed an estimated 34,000 people and left the survivors facing signs of famine.

As the hearing in Washington concluded, the Columbia president responded to an on-campus sit-in demonstration by calling in New York City police, who arrested more than 100 protesters, mostly students. The university suggested the students might also face suspensions.

The students nevertheless quickly resumed their encampment across Columbia’s main campus lawn – and inspired similar sit-ins at campuses across the US. The Columbia president has since hesitated in her response. She initially said that she would reconsider any future use of city police, then set a deadline for the students to leave or be evicted, then retreated from that deadline in the hours ahead of the US House speaker’s scheduled arrival. The university has also ended all in-person classes for the remaining few days of the spring semester.

The situation has left the Columbia president facing resignation demands both from students, over her use of the police, and from conservative politicians including the House speaker, who contend she has not done enough to quell student expressions of support for the Palestinians.

House Republicans have characterised their position as animated by a desire to protect Jewish students, even as their Democratic counterparts outlined an extended history of Republican support for antisemitic voices, including the former US president, Donald Trump, backing participants in the 2017 white supremacist rally near the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

The House Republican campaign in favour of Israel – which enjoys strong support among conservative and Christian Americans – has also overlooked campus incidents in which Muslim and Palestinian students have been victims.

Mr Johnson is getting more engaged in the matter after just surviving a bid by one of the party’s most right-wing figures, Marjorie Taylor Greene, to topple him over Mr Johnson’s support for a package of military aid for Ukraine that also included money for Israel and Taiwan.

The speaker, with a law degree and an undergraduate degree in business administration from Louisiana State University, told Mr Hewitt in the interview that he had never heard of any antisemitic rhetoric at LSU or any other university in the state. “If it happened at my alma mater, which is LSU, I’d be down there myself to stop it,” the speaker said.

“This is outrageous,” Mr Johnson said. “We have Jewish students who have actually been physically assaulted, they’ve been harassed, they’ve been intimidated and threatened,” he said of the situation at Columbia.

Columbia University leaders, in calling in the city police, said “the encampment and related disruptions pose a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the university”. University officials, however, have since declined to identify any violence associated with the encampments, which included Jewish Seder ceremonies marking the start of the Passover holiday.

The bigger danger, said Christopher Brown, a professor of history at Columbia, was the moment of armed police taking away students from a peaceful event. “The president’s decision to send riot police to pick up peaceful protesters on our campus was unprecedented, unjustified, disproportionate, divisive and dangerous,” Professor Brown told students at the encampment.

“We are fortunate that no one was hurt,” he told the student protesters. “With that kind of show of force, with all those firearms, all it takes is for one person to get nervous, a table to fall, a car or a truck to backfire down on Amsterdam Avenue – shots fired.”

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