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Columbia Leaders Grilled at Antisemitism Hearing Over Faculty Comments

Columbia’s president said the university had suspended 15 students. She promised that a visiting professor “will never work at Columbia again.”

And when asked if she would remove another professor from her leadership position, she seemed to make a decision on the spot, at the Capitol: “I think I would, yes. »

Speaker Nemat Shafik disclosed the disciplinary details, which are usually confidential, as part of an all-out effort Wednesday to persuade a House committee investigating Colombia that she was taking serious steps to combat a surge of anti-Semitism following the clash between Israel and Hamas. war.

During his nearly four-hour testimony before the Republican Committee on Education and the Workforce, Dr. Shafik acknowledged that Columbia was initially overwhelmed by a surge in campus protests. But she said her leaders now agree that some had used anti-Semitic language and that some disputed expressions – like “from the river to the sea” – could warrant disciplinary action.

“I promise you, from the messages I hear from students, they understand that there will be consequences for violations of our policies,” Dr. Shafik said.

Testifying alongside him, Claire Shipman, co-chair of Columbia’s board of trustees, pointed this out bluntly. “We are going through a moral crisis on our campus,” she said.

Republicans seemed skeptical. But Dr. Shafik’s conciliatory tone is the latest measure of the extent to which universities have changed their approach to campus protests in recent months.

Many schools were initially hesitant to take strong action to limit cherished free speech on their campuses. But as many Jewish students, faculty and alumni sound the alarm, and the federal government investigates dozens of schools, some administrators have tried to take more forceful steps to police their campuses.

With 5,000 Jewish students and an active protest movement for the Palestinian cause, Colombia is among the most scrutinized. Jewish students described being verbally and even physically harassed, while protesters clashed with administrators over limits on gathering locations and times.

On the day of Dr. Shafik’s congressional hearing, protesters against anti-Semitism gathered at Columbia University. Credit…Adam Gray for the New York Times
Dr. Shafik acknowledged Wednesday that Columbia was initially overwhelmed by a surge in campus protests.Credit…Adam Gray for the New York Times

By leaning toward House Republicans in Washington, Dr. Shafik may have further divided his New York campus, where students had pitched tents and set up a “Gaza solidarity encampment” early Wednesday , in blatant violation of university protest policies. Activists have rejected accusations of anti-Semitism and say they speak for Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom have been killed by Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

Sheldon Pollock, a retired Columbia professor who helps lead the Columbia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said Dr. Shafik was “bulldozed and intimidated” into saying things. things she would regret.

“What happened to the idea of ​​academic freedom?” asked Dr. Pollock. “I don’t think that expression has been used even once.”

Dr. Shafik, who took office in July 2023 after a career in education and international agencies, has repeatedly defended the university’s commitment to freedom of expression. But she said administrators “cannot and must not tolerate the abuse of this privilege” when it puts others at risk.

His comments contrasted with testimony last December from the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. Appearing before the same House committee, they offered terse, legal responses and struggled to determine whether the students should be punished if they called for the genocide of Jews. The storm that followed helped hasten their eviction.

Dr. Shafik missed this previous hearing due to a pre-planned international trip. She made clear Wednesday that she’s not about to make similar mistakes.

When asked the same question about whether calls for genocide violated Colombia’s code of conduct, Dr. Shafik responded affirmatively – “Yes, it does” – alongside others Colombian leaders present at the hearing.

Dr. Shafik explained that the university suspended two student groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, because they repeatedly violated its policies on protests.

She also seemed more willing than Harvard or Penn leaders to condemn and potentially discipline students and faculty who use language such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free.” Some believe the phrase calls for the elimination of the State of Israel, while its supporters say it is an ambitious call for Palestinian freedom.

“We have ongoing disciplinary cases around this language,” she said. “We have made it clear that these types of chants should be limited depending on where they take place. »

However, much of the hearing focused on faculty members and not students.

Under persistent questioning from Republicans, Dr. Shafik gave surprising details about disciplinary proceedings against university professors. She noted that Columbia has about 4,700 faculty and promised there would be “consequences” for employees who “make remarks that cross the line in terms of anti-Semitism.”

So far, Dr. Shafik said, five faculty members have been removed from classrooms or fired in recent months for comments related to the war. Dr. Shafik said Mohamed Abdou, a visiting professor who drew anger for showing support for Hamas on social media, “is grading his students’ papers and will never teach at Columbia again.” Dr. Abdou did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The president also revealed that the university was investigating Joseph Massad, a professor of Middle East studies, who used the word “brilliant” to describe the October 7 attack by Hamas and who, according to Israel, killed 1,200 people.

Dr. Shafik and other leaders denounced his work in stark terms. But Dr Shafik struggled to say clearly, when asked, whether Dr Massad would be removed as head of an academic panel.

“Will you make a commitment to remove him from his post as president? asked Rep. Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, during a quick exchange.

Dr. Shafik replied cautiously: “I think it would be – I think I would, yes.

During the hearing, Representative Elise Stefanik questioned Dr. Shafik.Credit…Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for the New York Times

In an email sent Wednesday, Dr. Massad said he did not watch the hearing but had seen some clips. He accused Republicans on the committee of misrepresenting his writings and said it was “unfortunate” that Columbia officials did not defend him.

Dr Massad said it was also “news to me” that he was being investigated in Colombia. He noted that he was already scheduled to step down from his leadership role at the end of the spring semester.

Dr. Shafik’s comments deeply worried some supporters of academic freedom.

“We are seeing a new era of McCarthyism where a House committee is using college presidents and professors for political theater,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors. “They are advancing an agenda that will ultimately harm higher education and the robust exchange of ideas on which it relies. »

Democrats on the House committee unanimously denounced anti-Semitism, but repeatedly accused Republicans of trying to weaponize a difficult time for elite universities like Columbia, seeking to weaken them over differences long-standing policies.

When Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, the committee’s top Democrat, tried to get Ms. Shipman to agree that the committee should investigate a wide range of biases around race, sex and gender, she resisted.

“We have a specific problem on our campus, so I can speak to what I know, and that is rampant anti-Semitism,” she said.

Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, one of only two Muslim women in Congress, pushed back against Dr. Shafik from the left, questioning what the university was doing to help students doxxed for their activism for the Palestinian cause or faced with anti-Arab sentiment. .

Dr. Shafik said the university has put together resources to help targeted students.

At the end of the hearing, Republicans began fact-checking his claims, drawing on thousands of pages of documents turned over by the university as part of the committee’s investigation.

Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina and chairwoman of the committee, said several of the student suspensions described by Dr. Shafik had already been lifted and argued that students still did not take the state’s policies seriously. ‘university.

In a statement after the hearing, Ms Stefanik said she also found Dr Shafik’s assurances unconvincing.

“If it takes a member of Congress to force a university president to fire a pro-terrorist, anti-Semitic faculty director,” she said, “then Columbia University leaders are failing Jewish students and their academic mission.

Anemone Hartocollis reports contributed.

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With a penchant for words, jack began writing at an early age. As editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, he honed his skills telling impactful stories. Smith went on to study journalism at Columbia University, where he graduated top of his class. After interning at the New York Times, jack landed a role as a news writer. Over the past decade, he has covered major events like presidential elections and natural disasters. His ability to craft compelling narratives that capture the human experience has earned him acclaim. Though writing is his passion, jack also enjoys hiking, cooking and reading historical fiction in his free time. With an eye for detail and knack for storytelling, he continues making his mark at the forefront of journalism.
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