Who Are Joseph Massad and the Other Columbia Professors Mentioned in the House Hearing?

Equipo
By Equipo
6 Min Read

Several Columbia faculty members — Joseph Andoni Massad, Katherine Franke and Mohamed Abdou — were in the spotlight at Wednesday’s hearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

All three had taken pro-Palestinian stances, and lawmakers grilled university officials over how they responded to what Columbia’s President Nemat Shafik agreed were “unacceptable” comments by the faculty members.

At the hearing, Dr. Shafik divulged that two of the professors — Dr. Massad and Ms. Franke — were under investigation for making “discriminatory remarks,” and said that Dr. Abdou “will never work at Columbia again.” Such responses drew a sharp rebuke from some professors and the American Association of University Professors, which said she capitulated to political grandstanding and, in the process, violated established tenets of academic freedom.

“We are witnessing a new era of McCarthyism where a House Committee is using college presidents and professors for political theater,” said Irene Mulvey, national president of the AAUP. She added, “President Shafik’s public naming of professors under investigation to placate a hostile committee sets a dangerous precedent for academic freedom and has echoes of the cowardice often displayed during the McCarthy era.”

Dr. Massad, who is of Palestinian Christian descent, was the focus of Representative Tim Walberg’s questioning. He teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia, where he also received his Ph.D. in political science.

Long known for his anti-Israel positions, he published a controversial article in The Electronic Intifada last October, in the wake of the Hamas attack, describing it as a “resistance offensive” staged in retaliation to Israel’s settler-colonies near the Gaza border.

The piece drew a visceral response and demands for his dismissal in a petition by a Columbia student that was signed by tens of thousands of people. The petition specifically criticized Dr. Massad’s use of the word “awesome” to describe the scene of the attack.

Dr. Massad’s posture has drawn controversy for years. When he was awarded tenure in 2009, 14 Columbia professors expressed their concern in a letter to the provost. Generally, professors with tenure face a much higher bar for termination than those without the status.

More recently, however, professors nationally have rallied to support him, emphasizing his academic right to voice his opinion.

In a statement after the hearing, Dr. Massad said that the House committee members had mischaracterized his article. Mr. Walberg said that Dr. Massad had said Hamas’s murder of Jews was “awesome, astonishing, astounding and incredible.”

“I certainly said nothing of the sort,” Dr. Massad said.

In testimony responding to questions from Mr. Walberg, a Michigan Republican, Dr. Shafik said that Dr. Massad had been removed from a leadership role at the university, where he headed an academic review panel.

But Dr. Massad said in an email that he had not been notified by Columbia that he was under investigation, adding that he had been previously scheduled to end his chairmanship of the academic review committee at the end of the semester, a statement that a spokesman for Columbia verified after the hearing.

Dr. Massad said it was “unfortunate” that Dr. Shafik and other university leaders “would condemn fabricated statements that I never made when all three of them should have corrected the record to show that I never said or wrote such reprehensible statements.”

Katherine Franke, a law professor at Columbia, was also mentioned in the hearing for her activist role and a comment that “all Israeli students who served in the I.D.F. are dangerous and shouldn’t be on campus,” referring to the Israel Defense Forces.

Ms. Franke, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment, recently wrote a piece in The Nation raising questions about academic freedom at Columbia, where she has taught since 1999.

Mohamed Abdou was also named in the hearing. Dr. Abdou was hired as a visiting scholar for the Spring 2024 term, and was teaching a course called “Decolonial-Queerness and Abolition.

A biography on Columbia’s website describes Dr. Abdou as “a North African-Egyptian Muslim anarchist interdisciplinary activist-scholar of Indigenous, Black, critical race and Islamic studies, as well as gender, sexuality, abolition and decolonization.”

Representative Elise Stefanik asked why he was hired even after his social media post on Oct. 11 that read, “I’m with Hamas & Hezbollah & Islamic Jihad.” Dr. Shafik said, “He will never work at Columbia again. Dr. Abdou did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Sheldon Pollock, a retired Columbia professor who serves on the executive committee of Columbia’s American Association of University Professors chapter, called such comments about specific professors “deeply worrying,” adding that he thought Dr. Shafik was “bullied by these people into saying things I’m sure she regrets.”

He continued, “What happened to the idea of academic freedom in today’s testimony? I don’t think that phrase was used even once.

A spokesman for Columbia declined to comment on the criticism of Dr. Shafik.

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