Professors condemn Columbia crackdown on pro-Palestine students

<span>Student protesters resume demonstrations on Friday at Columbia University on 19 April 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
Student protesters resume demonstrations on Friday at Columbia University on 19 April 2024.Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

The Columbia and Barnard chapters of the American Association of University Professors have issued a joint statement condemning Columbia president Minouche Shafik’s crackdowns on student-led pro-Palestinian protests.

In the statement released on Friday, the chapters said: “We are shocked at her failure to mount any defense of the free inquiry central to the educational mission of a university in a democratic society and at her willingness to appease legislators seeking to interfere in university affairs.”

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“She has demonstrated flagrant disregard of shared governance in her acceptance of partisan charges that anti-war demonstrators are violent and antisemitic and in her unilateral and wildly disproportionate punishment of peacefully protesting students,” the statement added.

The chapters’ statement comes after Shafik’s testimony to Congress earlier this week, in which she was grilled by lawmakers over a reported rise in antisemitism on campus following Israel’s war on Gaza. Following Hamas’s attack on Israel, which killed approximately 1,200 Israelis, Israel launched a war on Gaza, killing approximately 34,000 Palestinians across the narrow strip while leaving 2 million survivors forcibly displaced amid a famine caused by Israeli aid restrictions.

In response to Shafik’s testimony, the chapters said: “President Shafik’s testimony … has profoundly disturbed us. In the face of slanderous assaults on Columbia faculty and students and of gross interference in academic practices by congressional inquisitors, president Shafik not only did not object – she capitulated to their demands.”

“President Shafik, the co-chairs of the board of trustees, and the former dean of the law school allowed this freedom for Columbia faculty to be publicly pressed. They effectively pledged, on the congressional record, to end academic freedom at Columbia,” the statement continued.

As Shafik testified, students set up approximately 60 tents on the campus’s south lawn in the early hours of Wednesday. The encampment was organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. The latter two organizations were suspended by the university last November, in turn spurring civil rights groups to file a lawsuit against the university for its “retaliatory” and “targeted” actions.

The tents, many of which were covered in signs that read “Liberated Zone” and “Israel bombs, Columbia pays”, were set up to urge the university to divest from its ties to Israel.

In response, Shafik authorized the New York police department to break up the encampments, claiming that they “pose a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the university”. More than 100 students have been arrested by police.

Meanwhile, NYPD chief of patrol John Chell said that the “clear and present danger” was identified by the university, adding: “To put this in perspective, the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner,” the Columbia Spectator reported.

The chapters condemned Shafik’s summoning of the police, calling it a “grotesque violation of norms of shared governance”. Additionally, the chapters pointed to the university statutes, which require “consultation” with the university senate executive committee “before anything so drastic as yesterday’s attack would be permitted”.

“President Shafik’s administration did not consult; they informed the committee of its decision,” the committee’s executive chair said, according to the statement.

It went on to add: “In Wednesday’s hearing, president Shafik repeatedly claimed that she was inaugurating a new era at Columbia. Her actions thus far suggest that this era will be one of repressed speech, political restrictions on academic inquiry, and punitive discipline against the university’s own students and faculty.”

Since last October, American universities have faced a reckoning surrounding the limits of free speech as tensions over Israel’s war on Gaza rise, as well as harassment of both Muslim and Jewish students. Presidents of multiple universities have been questioned by the Republican-majority House over reported rises in antisemitism on college campuses, with Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania’s presidents later resigning.

Last October, a Jewish student center at Cornell University was placed under guard after a series of antisemitic comments including death threats were posted on an online message board. In January, New York police announced they were investigating an alleged chemical attack on students who were protesting in solidarity with Palestine on Columbia’s campus, with Columbia’s SJP chapter saying at least 10 students had been hospitalised.

This week, the University of Southern California faced protests by hundreds of students after the university cancelled the valedictorian speech of Muslim student Asna Tabassum, who had posted on social media in support of Palestine. In northern California, tensions remain high at the University of California, Berkeley, after pro-Palestinian students criticized Israel at a dinner hosted by Berkeley’s law school dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, who describes himself as a Zionist and free-speech advocate.