Congressional committee grills Columbia University president on campus antisemitism

Written by on April 17, 2024

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(NEW YORK) — Columbia University President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik testified Wednesday before a congressional committee investigating antisemitism on the New York City campus after two of her counterparts at other elite colleges resigned amid a backlash over their responses at a previous hearing of the same panel.

Prior to letting Shafik speak, Rep. Virginia Foxx, chair of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, opened the hearing by calling some elite U.S. colleges “hotbeds of antisemitism and hate.”

“Columbia University is one of the worst of those hotbeds and we’ve seen too little, far too late done to counter that and protect students and staff,” Foxx, R-North Carolina, said. “Columbia stands guilty of gross negligence at best and, at worst, has become a platform for those supporting terrorism and violence against the Jewish people.”

In her opening statement, Shafik, who was appointed president of the Ivy League school in July 2023, told the committee that Columbia “strives to be a community free of discrimination and hate in all forms and we condemn the antisemitism that is so pervasive today.”

Shafik said she took the job to foster a diverse community at Columbia.

“But on Oct. 7, the world changed and so did my focus,” she said of the day Hamas terrorists launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking others hostage, according to Israeli officials.

She said a “major challenge” has been reconciling free speech with the rights of Jewish students to go to school in a environment free of discrimination and harassment.

“Regrettably, the events of Oct. 7 brought to the fore an undercurrent of antisemitism that is a major challenge and like many other universities Columbia has seen a rise in antisemitic incidents,” Shafik said.

Shafik said she has taken actions since Oct. 7, including enhancing Columbia’s reporting channels, hiring staff to investigate complaints and forming an antisemitism task force.

“Safety is paramount and we would do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of our campus,” Shafik said. “We must uphold freedom of speech, because it’s essential to our academic mission, but we cannot and shouldn’t tolerate abuse of this privilege to harass and discriminate.”

Shafik was joined on the witness panel by David M. Schizer, dean emeritus and Harvey R. Miller professor of law and economics at Columbia Law School; Claire Shipman, co-chair of the Columbia University Board of Trustees; and David Greenwald, also a co-chair of the school’s board of trustees.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, repeated a key question from the first antisemitism hearing in December: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Columbia’s code of conduct?”

Each witness, including Shafik, told Rep. Bonamici, “Yes, it does.”

In a heated exchange, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York, asked Shafik what disciplinary action has been taken against faculty members who have made antisemitic remarks.

Shafik said repeatedly that those faculty members “have been spoken to” but cited only one who has been dismissed for making such remarks.

Speaking about one professor who was spoken to by a senior administrator after making antisemitic comments, Shafik said “he has not repeated anything like that.”

“Does he need to repeat, stating that the massacre of Israeli civilians ‘was awesome’?” Stefanik asked. “Does he need to repeat his participation in an unauthorized pro-Hamas demonstration on April 4?”

Before Shafik could respond, Stefanik cited Schizer’s opening statement, in which he spoke about the lack of enforcement at Columbia.

Shafik answered, “We have 4,700 faculty at Columbia …” But before she could finish her sentence, Stefanik cut her off.

“But I’m talking about faculty members who are supporting terror,” Stefanik said.

She noted a professor who was hired after the Oct. 7 attacks and later posted “Yes, I am with Hamas and and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad” on social media.

“He also decried ‘false reports’ accusing Arabs and Muslims of decapitating the heads of children and being rapists,” Stefanik said. “We know that there were decapitations of babies, of innocent Israeli citizens, of seniors, of women. There were rapes. Yet, Columbia hired this individual as a professor. How did that hiring process work? Were you aware of those statements before the hiring?”

Shafik responded, “I share your repugnance at those remarks. I completely understand that. On my watch, faculty who make remarks that cross the line, there will be consequences for that.”

She said that professors who cross the line will be “either taken out of the classroom or dismissed.”

“Was he one of those?” Stefanik asked.

Shafik said, “He has not just been terminated, but his files will show that he will never work at Columbia again.”

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