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At antisemitism hearing, Columbia official tells lawmakers, 'We have a moral crisis'

The president of Columbia University, Nemat Shafik, testified before the House Education Committee alongside a Columbia University law professor and two trustees.
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The president of Columbia University, Nemat Shafik, testified before the House Education Committee alongside a Columbia University law professor and two trustees.

Updated April 17, 2024 at 18:03 PM ET

A little déjà vu happened on the Hill on Wednesday.

The president of Columbia University testified about how the school has responded to antisemitic incidents on campus after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel's military response in Gaza.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish students on college campuses have experienced a "stark increase" in antisemitic incidents following Oct. 7.

Wednesday's hearing was reminiscent of another antisemitism hearing, held in December, when House Education Committee members grilled the presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania. Two of those presidents ended up resigning, in part because of that hearing.

But there were some stark differences between the hearings, including that the Columbia representatives agreed with lawmakers that antisemitism was a serious problem on campus.

"It is not tolerated and it is not acceptable," said Columbia President Nemat Shafik, "and over the last six months we have done everything we can and have worked tirelessly to improve our policies and our enforcement."

Shafik testified alongside a Columbia University law professor and two trustees.

When Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon, asked whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated Columbia's code of conduct, all four Columbia representatives provided a clear "Yes it does."

Their answer stands in contrast to the December hearing, during which the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT answered the same question in a legalistic way that was criticized for lacking moral clarity.

Many of the Columbia officials' answers acknowledged they have work to do. "You are right," Columbia trustee Claire Shipman responded to one lawmaker, "we have a moral crisis on our campus."

During the hearing, some lawmakers – including Tim Walberg, a Republican from Michigan, and Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York – pushed hard on specific incidents of Columbia professors who have made comments in support of Hamas.

They frequently interrupted the Columbia representatives to ask what disciplinary actions had been taken, and whether the professors were still teaching at Columbia. In response, the college leaders vowed to hold faculty members accountable for antisemitic speech.

Columbia's representatives said they had created a Task Force on Antisemitism. They said dozens of students have been disciplined and students who participated in unauthorized events have been suspended. Shafik repeatedly said that education was key, and she vowed to include lessons on antisemitism at orientations for new students.

Jacob Schmeltz, a senior at Columbia studying political science, and a co-vice president of the Jewish On Campus Student Union, watched Wednesday's hearing with fellow students.

"I'm really happy that they finally made a really clear statement that this is an issue and acknowledged just how difficult it has been for Jewish students over the last six months," he says.

He says he'll be looking to see if administrators follow through with the things they committed to in the hearing, like holding professors accountable and educating students about antisemitism. He hopes that kind of follow through will help improve the campus climate at Columbia, and elsewhere.

"This issue has completely consumed campus since Oct. 7," he says.

"I hope that we continue to center the experiences of Jewish students on these other campuses and continue to work to fight antisemitism all across the country."

Fallout from the December hearing

The December hearing with the presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn saw high tension and headline-grabbing consequences. This was largely due to tough questioning from Stefanik, who refused to accept the presidents' vague, prepared answers.

Just days after the hearing, Penn President Elizabeth Magill stepped down.

Less than a month later, Harvard's president, Claudine Gay, resigned following accusations of plagiarism.

Stefanik celebrated the resignations, tweeting "Two down. One to go."

MIT President Sally Kornbluth is still in her position.

"It's impossible to win a hearing"

Before the hearing, in a letter to the campus community, Shafik said she was prepared to "share what we have learned as we battle this ancient hatred at Columbia University."

Rep. Virginia Foxx, Republican chair of the committee, said in a press release that she called the hearing because, "Some of the worst cases of antisemitic assaults, harassment, and vandalism on campus have occurred at Columbia University."

"It's impossible to win a hearing, but it's easy to lose a hearing and end up on TV," said Christopher Armstrong, a lawyer at Holland & Knight who advises clients on how to respond to congressional investigations.

He said both lawmakers and the representatives from Columbia had the benefit of studying that December hearing and having ample time to prepare – and it showed.

"I thought the witnesses approached this hearing today in a very candid and sincere way. It was clear they recognize this is a very real challenge on campus and it's something colleges across the country are wrestling with."

Investigations into Columbia

Columbia is under investigation by the House Education Committee for "the inadequacy of Columbia's response to antisemitism on its campus," according to a letter the committee sent to the school.

At the end of Wednesday's hearing, Foxx left open the possibility that the committee would convene another hearing centered on Columbia. She told school officials, "We are prepared to bring you back if we don't see more tangible progress."

Columbia is also among a number of colleges under investigation by the U.S. Education Department regarding alleged civil rights violations in the wake of Oct 7.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Janet W. Lee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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