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Columbia president Minouche Shafik faces criticism in all directions

By Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN

New York (CNN) — When Minouche Shafik was announced as Columbia University’s president last year, she was called the “perfect candidate” by the chair of Columbia’s Board of Trustees.

Now, some of her own students and professors, as well as the speaker of the House of Representatives, are calling on her to resign.

Just over nine months into her tenure, Shafik — an Egyptian-born economist and former high-ranking official at the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Bank of England, and former president of the London School of Economics — is under pressure for her handling of Columbia campus protests over the war between Israel and Hamas.

College administrators have been under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill and Harvard University president Claudine Gay both stepped down in the wake of pressure over their response to antisemitism on campus.

At Columbia, some students, faculty and left-leaning lawmakers are enraged that Shafik authorized the New York Police Department to shut down student protests on campus that have been urging the university to cut off its economic and academic ties to Israel. They say the crackdown on student protests, which resulted in more than 100 arrests, violated academic freedom. At the same time, students, religious groups and right-leaning lawmakers say the administration has failed to stop antisemitism inside Columbia’s campus and at protests outside its gates.

“Calling in police enforcement on nonviolent demonstrations of young students on campus is an escalatory, reckless, and dangerous act,” Democratic Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez posted on X Tuesday. “It represents a heinous failure of leadership that puts people’s lives at risk. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

The Republican House speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson, called on Shafik to resign during a tense press conference Wednesday at Columbia. “I am here today, joining my colleagues and calling on President Shafik to resign if she cannot immediately bring order to this chaos,” Johnson said.

“These are incredibly difficult situations for a university president, especially someone who is not tested over time,” said James Finkelstein, a professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University who studies the selection and employment of university presidents.

“She’s at serious risk of being able to survive this,” Finkelstein added. “The likelihood of her keeping her job is at best 50-50.”

Columbia’s Board of Trustees is standing by Shafik, saying it “strongly supports” Shafik as she “steers the university through this extraordinarily challenging time.”

“During the search process for this role, President Shafik told us that she would always take a thoughtful approach to resolving conflict, balancing the disparate voices that make up a vibrant campus like Columbia’s, while taking a firm stance against hatred, harassment, and discrimination,” the board said in a statement Wednesday. “That’s exactly what she’s doing now.”

Comparisons to Vietnam campus protests

Shafik has now drawn comparisons to former Columbia president Grayson Kirk, who in 1968 called in 1,000 police officers in riot gear to quell students protesting the Vietnam War, Columbia’s role in military research and its relationship to the Harlem community.

Kirk resigned later that year.

Last week, Shafik authorized the New York Police Department to sweep the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on Columbia’s campus. Police arrested more than 100 people on suspicion of criminal trespassing, and Columbia suspended students participating in the protest encampment.

“Columbia itself has its own traditions and memories of bringing police on campus,” Finkelstein said. “You have a historically activist faculty and student body.”

Shafik’s decision to authorize the NYPD to arrest protestors “suggests to me being very insensitive to the history of the institution,” he said.

Some Columbia faculty members have denounced Shafik’s decision to authorize the NYPD to remove protesters from campus and demanded all legal and disciplinary charges be dismissed and expunged from students’ records. The faculty voted to submit a symbolic measure censuring Shafik for her decision to authorize the NYPD, which they said was an “unprecedented assault on student rights.”

Response to antisemitism

Shafik has denounced antisemitism, urged students to report incidents of discrimination and said hateful speech and acts against Jews would be investigated by the university since Hamas’ attack on civilians in Israel on October 7.

On November 1, she announced the formation of a university task force on antisemitism.

During congressional testimony last week, Shafik said students and faculty have been disciplined for antisemitism and that more work was needed to combat antisemitism.

Still, Shafik and the university administration are under fire for their response to antisemitism and to Islamophobia, as well.

Last fall, a Columbia student who was hanging posters on campus in support of Israel was assaulted. The university has also faced criticism for hiring a professor who allegedly expressed support for Hamas on social media following the October 7 terror attack on Israel. That professor has been fired, Shafik said last Wednesday.

The Department of Education is investigating Columbia, UPenn, Harvard and four other schools after complaints about alleged incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia. At the conclusion of the investigations, the Department of Education will make recommendations to the schools. The schools risk losing federal funding if they don’t comply.

Some Jewish students have described being verbally and physically harassed on campus, and there have been incidents outside of Columbia’s campus of antisemitism.

Columbia’s Hillel group has called on the university to do more to protect students and ensure that students can walk around campus without fear of harassment.

Some major donors, Republican lawmakers and a handful of Democratic lawmakers have said these incidents show Shafik’s response to antisemitism is lacking and called on her to resign.

“I am no longer confident that Columbia can protect its students and staff, and I am not comfortable supporting the university until corrective action is taken,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who graduated from Columbia and has donated millions of dollars to the university, said Monday. “It is my hope that Columbia and its leadership will stand up to this hate by ending these protests immediately.”

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