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Columbia’s President May Face a Censure Resolution

USColumbia’s President May Face a Censure Resolution


In February, Nemat Shafik, the president of Columbia University, told the school’s senate that she sensed a “low level of trust” in the administration.

There was a feeling, Dr. Shafik said, that “the administration is the enemy,” according to the minutes of her meeting with the senate.

If the campus distrusted Dr. Shafik two months ago, the relationship is now approaching estrangement.

The university senate is expected to vote, possibly as early as Wednesday, on a resolution censuring Dr. Shafik, a reaction to her testimony before Congress and the arrests of more than 100 student protesters.

A draft of the resolution, circulated Monday, accused Dr. Shafik of violating “the fundamental requirements of academic freedom,” ignoring faculty governance and staging an “unprecedented assault on student rights.”

The resolution is expected to be introduced by two members of the 111-seat senate in a meeting as early as Wednesday. It specifically states that the resolution is not a call for Dr. Shafik’s resignation, but The resolution also calls for the censure of other university officials, including Claire Shipman and David Greenwald, the chairs of Columbia’s board of trustees.

Asked for a comment on the proposed resolution, a spokesman for Columbia issued a statement: “President Shafik is focused on de-escalating the rancor on Columbia’s campus. She is working across campus with members of the faculty, administration, and board of trustees, and with state, city, and community leaders, and appreciates their support.”

Such a vote, if it passed, would be largely symbolic. The senate, which is made up of faculty, students and administrators, does not have the power to remove a president. And Dr. Shafik, who goes by Minouche, seems to retain the support of the university’s board of trustees. Ms. Shipman and Mr. Greenwald testified with her before Congress, and echoed her conciliatory approach to House Republicans.

But a censure vote, whether it passes or not, reflects the depth of anger among faculty members over the arrests of the student protesters, which faculty members say Dr. Shafik ordered without proper consultation with the university senate’s executive committee.

“I have the sense,” said David E. Pozen, a law professor, “that a very broad swath of the faculty, with very different views on the situation in Gaza and Israel, believes that President Shafik’s recent actions are alarming.”

Professors are also incensed over her testimony before Congress last Wednesday, where they say she capitulated to the demands of conservative Republicans on questions of academic freedom. And they are incredulous that her office disclosed information to Congress about pending internal investigations of faculty members, which are usually confidential.

Not all faculty are on board.

Dr. Andrew R. Marks, the chair of the department of physiology at Columbia’s medical school and a member of the university senate’s executive committee, said that antisemitism on campus, not Dr. Shafik’s leadership, was the problem.

“I want her to succeed,” he said. “I want her to be able to manage all of this and get us out of this mess.”

Dr. Shafik was a nontraditional choice for president. Despite having served as president of the London School of Economics for six years, Dr. Shafik, an economist, spent most of her career with the International Monetary Fund, the Bank of England, and the World Bank. She had few ties to Columbia.

And the mood had already been tense before the hearing. In a letter on April 5, 23 faculty members warned Dr. Shafik that, in agreeing to appear before Congress, she would be walking into a “political theater of a new McCarthyism.”

As they predicted, the hearing did not improve things. Among their complaints was that she did not strongly defend academic freedom, while agreeing that some contested phrases — like “from the river to the sea” — might warrant discipline.

Dr. Shafik had thrown “academic freedom and Columbia University faculty under the bus,” said Irene Mulvey, national president for the American Association of University Professors, a national group that supports academics.

After the student arrests, more than 50 of the 90 full-time faculty in the law school released a letter on Sunday condemning Dr. Shafik for bringing the police to campus, and for suspending more than 100 student protesters.

A number of Columbia affiliates — the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and the head of the Union Theological Seminary — have also denounced the decision.

There was also consternation over Columbia’s decision to disclose to Congress internal information about professors under investigation, the same type of detail that Harvard has resisted releasing to the committee.

In a private letter on April 16, the day before the hearing, Columbia supplied the House committee with details about eight professors and one teaching assistant who were under investigation for alleged violations of university anti-discrimination regulations.

One of those professors, Dr. Joseph Massad, a professor of Middle Eastern studies, had not been informed of the pending investigation by an outside investigator, according to the letter to the House obtained by The New York Times.

Even so, Dr. Shafik answered specific questions about Dr. Massad during the hearing and an article he wrote in The Electronic Intifada, published the day after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

It described how Hamas paragliders overwhelmed the vaunted Israeli defenses, delivering what Dr. Massad, who is of Palestinian descent, described as a “death blow” to confidence in the military. Adjectives used in the piece, including “awesome,” were interpreted as supportive of the invasion.

When Representative Elise Stefanik pressed Dr. Shafik about the university’s response to the article, Dr. Shafik responded, “He was spoken to by his head of department and his dean.”

“And what was he told?” Ms. Stefanik asked.

That that language was unacceptable,” Dr. Shafik responded.

Dr. Massad, who has been a subject of campus controversy before, said he had been the target of death threats since the hearing.

In a statement, Columbia acknowledged that the university “generally does not disclose ongoing investigations, including to protect complainants.”

But, it said, “in this case, Congress’s interest required the university to do so.”

The statement added, “Representative Stefanik’s direct line of questioning on this matter obligated Professor Shafik to provide accurate information regarding the investigation.”

But for many of the professors, the breach of confidentiality amounted to being placed on public trial with no chance to defend themselves.

Katherine Franke, a law professor at Columbia, was also identified as being under investigation, in the letter and during the hearing.

On social media, she demanded an apology from Dr. Shafik for not correcting the record when Ms. Stefanik, a Republican from New York, claimed that she had made an inappropriate comment about Israeli students — a charge that Ms. Franke said Dr. Shafik knew was incorrect.

Albert Bininachvili, an adjunct professor in political science, was also on the list, based on what appears to have been one student’s complaint that he made antisemitic remarks directed at Jewish students.

Dr. Bininachvili, whose name was not mentioned during the hearing, said in an interview that the accusations were “completely unfounded, preposterous, absurd, ridiculous.”

“I’m a devoted Jew and I come from a practicing Jewish family and I have six members of my family who perished in the Holocaust,” Dr. Bininachvili said. “Even today, when we’re talking, several members of my extended family are living in Israel and serving in the I.D.F.”

Dr. Shafik’s handling of student arrests also did not follow rules and procedure, according to the American Association of University Professors.

The group said that Dr. Shafik violated a longstanding statute requiring that the university “consult” with the senate’s executive committee before the police are called to campus.

James Applegate, a professor of astronomy and a member of the committee, said the group was contacted by the university administration last Wednesday afternoon, the day before the police were called in.

After that meeting, the executive committee composed an email, Dr. Applegate said. He described the email from memory: “We call on the administration to engage the protesters in good faith dialogue to bring the protest to a peaceful end with all deliberate speed. We do not approve of police presence on campus at this time.”

The email was sent to the administration about 6 p.m. Wednesday, and Dr. Applegate said he received no further official word until the next day, when he was told that the police had been brought in.

Mr. Pozen, a constitutional law expert, said the action had backfired.

“If calling the cops last Thursday was meant to protect Jewish students, it seems to have had the opposite effect,” he said. “The initial encampment was peaceful while it lasted. The protests that followed its dismantling brought lots of outraged new people to campus and were much more volatile.”

Even Ms. Stefanik, whom Dr. Shafik tried to mollify, has called for her resignation, which would the follow the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Pozen said he does not think the law faculty wants to oust Dr. Shafik.

“My belief is that most law faculty members want to focus on improving the university’s policies rather than unseating a new president and handing Stefanik another scalp,” he said.



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