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Columbia University president takes heat at congressional antisemitism hearing

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Columbia University president takes heat at congressional antisemitism hearing
April 17, 2024
Gabriella Borter - Reuters

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) - A U.S. congressional committee on Wednesday accused Columbia University's president of failing to protect Jewish students on campus, echoing accusations leveled against three other elite university leaders at a hearing last year that sent shockwaves through higher education.

Columbia President Minouche Shafik responded to the accusations by some members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce by strongly denouncing antisemitic behavior by students and professors at the New York City-based Ivy League university, and by pledging there would be consequences.

Shafik said the university was facing a "moral crisis" with antisemitism on campus, and it had taken strong actions against suspected perpetrators. It had suspended students who participated in unauthorized protests, for example, and terminated a professor who supported the deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, she said.

"Trying to reconcile the free speech rights of those who want to protest and the rights of Jewish students to be in an environment free of discrimination and harassment has been the central challenge on our campus and numerous others across the country," Shafik told the committee.

At a hearing in December, the presidents of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania came under sharp attack for their responses to questions by members of the panel.

In particular, the three were lambasted after declining to provide a simple "yes" or "no" answer to Republican U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik when she asked whether calling for the genocide of Jews on campus would violate the university code of conduct.

Coming under intense pressure in the days after the hearing, Elizabeth Magill resigned from Penn's presidency later in December, and Claudine Gay left as president of Harvard in January.

When asked the same question on Wednesday, Columbia's Shafik, who has served as the university's president for about nine months, answered with a simple "Yes, it does."

Antisemitic and islamophobic incidents reached record high levels in the U.S. at the end of 2023, following the Hamas attack, which killed about 1,200 people, and Israel's fierce counteroffensive in Gaza, which has killed more than 33,000 and left most of the Hamas-led enclave in ruins.

Since then, tensions between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators on college campuses have boiled over, forcing university administrators to weigh the need to ensure students feel safe against their commitment to protecting free speech.

U.S. House Republicans seemed more satisfied with Shafik's denunciation of antisemitism than the Ivy League presidents before her, but pushed her to make sure her administration held offenders to account.

"The problem is action on campus doesn't match your rhetoric today," Representative Aaron Bean of Florida told the panel.

In addition to establishing a task force on antisemitism, Shafik said Columbia had put in place a new policy to respond to misconduct at protests.

It also enlisted the New York City police to help secure the Manhattan campus during demonstrations and was working to implement new training on antisemitism for the community, she said.

Still, she said, the university had work to do to bolster its vetting process for hiring professors, noting that one professor who was recently hired had been terminated for his support for Hamas' Oct. 7 attack and at least two professors are currently under investigation for making anti-Israel statements. She also said administrators were working to determine what types of speech constituted a punishable threat.

"We are making sure that going forward faculty that cross the line and discriminate or harass students on any issue ... there will be consequences," she said.

Shafik was joined at Wednesday's hearing by the two co-chairs of Columbia's Board of Trustees and a co-chair of the school's antisemitism task force.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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