Updated Apr 17, 2024 - Politics & Policy

"Moral crisis on our campus": Columbia leaders testify to Congress on antisemitism

Minouche Shafik sits with her hands crossed in front of her. She wears a blue jacket and burgundy glasses. Behind her, other people are seated.

Columbia president Nemat "Minouche" Shafik testifies during the House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on April 17. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Columbia leaders expressed disappointment with reports of discrimination on campus in a high-profile, Republican-led congressional hearing about the university's handling of allegations of antisemitism.

The big picture: Two Ivy League university presidents have already resigned following blowback from their testimony at a prior hearing, as reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia have increased on college campuses during the Israel-Hamas war.

  • "We have a moral crisis on our campus," said Claire Shipman, the school's board of trustees co-chair and a witness at the House committee hearing.

The big picture: The elite university presidents who testified last year were condemned for their avoidance of a clear answer to a yes/no question on whether "calling for the genocide of Jews" violated the schools' codes of conduct.

  • All of Columbia's witnesses answered "yes" to the same question on Wednesday.

Zoom in: Columbia's president, Dr. Nemat "Minouche" Shafik, was grilled by House Republicans including Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), who approached questioning similarly to the explosive hearing last year that led to two presidents' ousters.

  • The witnesses from Columbia appeared more willing to speak openly about antisemitism on campus.
  • Shafik said the "central challenge" at schools has been balancing the rights of free speech via protest while also ensuring the campus is a safe space, free of discrimination.
  • Democrats pushed back on their Republican colleagues' intentions during the hearing. "We should not put on political theater," said Rep. Robert Scott (D.-Va.), who added that GOP members' focus on student safety on Wednesday was at odds with the party's budget proposals.

Driving the news: Columbia University's leadership is guilty of "gross negligence at best" for its failures to appropriately respond, House Education Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said.

  • Foxx said the Ivy League school "at worst has become a platform for those supporting terrorism and violence against the Jewish people."
  • Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), in a statement before the hearing, accused Columbia of putting more effort into its PR campaign than protecting Jewish students. "We will hold them accountable," she said.

What they're saying: "The last six months on our campus have served as an extreme pressure test," Shipman said. "Our systems clearly have not been equipped to manage the unfolding situation."

  • Shafik said the university has instituted a new policy toward unsanctioned demonstrations with a hierarchy of punishments. Anyone who attends an unsanctioned event is sent a warning letter, she said, with potential further sanctions.
  • Columbia has suspended 15 students and has put others on disciplinary probation for their related actions, per Shafik.
  • "The students are getting the message," she said.

Muslim students need to be protected equally to Jewish students, said David Schizer, a witness and law and economics professor.

  • "Our specific mandate is antisemitism but we hope that our recommendations and the ideas we develop with colleagues will be applicable to everyone," he said.

Pro-Palestinian students have a right to express their views, said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) during the hearing. He submitted a letter from 600 faculty, staff and students expressing a commitment to "open, honest inquiry."

  • U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) requested follow-up information from Columbia's leadership on how it has protected students who faced harassment, after mentioning students who have been doxxed for their views.
  • For many students, "the war in Gaza also had profound personal implications and was also part of a larger story of Palestinian displacement, as well as a human catastrophe," Shafik said at the start of the hearing.

What we're watching: Some of the most heated exchanges between lawmakers and witnesses involved the stances of faculty members within the school's Middle East studies department.

  • "I'm very personally committed to making sure that our faculty do not cross the line in terms of discrimination and harassment," Shafik said. "We have mechanisms that are now being enforced and on my watch, they will be enforced. I think many of these appointments were made in the past in a different era, and that era is done."
  • Hours into the hearing, Shafik committed to removing Arab politics professor Joseph Massad as chair of the academic review committee. His statements on the Hamas attack were a focus of several questions on Wednesday.

Background: Columbia received a D on the Anti-Defamation League's recent campus antisemitism report.

  • Shafik had declined the request to join the previous hearing with Harvard, MIT and Penn leaders.
  • She became the university's president in mid-2023 and was inaugurated in October.

Go deeper: Education Dept. investigating alleged antisemitism, Islamophobia at 6 colleges

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new details throughout. It has been corrected to reflect that it was Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), not Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), who requested follow-up information on how Columbia has protected students from harassment.

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