What We Know About Columbia’s President, Nemat Shafik

By Equipo
9 Min Read

The president of Columbia University, Nemat Shafik, is grappling with the fallout over her handling of student protests against the war in Gaza.

After appearing in a congressional hearing where many Republican lawmakers criticized the university’s efforts to quash antisemitism on campus, the school called in local law enforcement for the first time in decades to quell an unauthorized demonstration on Thursday.

The crackdown came one day after pro-Palestinian students had erected an encampment with dozens of tents, and refused to leave until their demands were met. The police swept through campus, arresting at least 108 protesters and discarding the tents as students jeered them.

Some Jewish students and others have said they appreciated the response, while some left-leaning faculty members, students, free speech advocates and others have said it was too harsh. Within hours, it was evident that the aggressive response might not have achieved its goal: Several student protesters said they were not only undiscouraged, but inspired to take new action.

What Is Dr. Shafik’s Background

Dr. Shafik took the helm of the school in July 2023, becoming the first woman to lead Columbia.

An economist by trade, she arrived with a uniquely global perspective for a college president. Her childhood was split across continents: Dr. Shafik was born in Egypt, but partly raised in the United States after her family fled the country when she was 4.

She ventured overseas to Britain to earn a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, an institution she also led for six years before arriving at Columbia. She also worked for the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund.

Her international experience was praised when she was appointed. She beat out a pool of roughly 600 nominations for the role, the campus student newspaper, The Columbia Daily Spectator, reported.

The university described her as a “tireless proponent of diversity and inclusion,” and one of her first challenges was to help the school respond to the Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action in admissions.

Jonathan Lavine, the former chair of the university’s board of trustees, called her the “perfect candidate” at the time. He described her as a “community builder” who understood the “vital role institutions of higher education can and must play in solving the world’s most complex problems.”

How She Responded to the Oct. 7 Attacks

In the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel, Dr. Shafik called for compassion and civility, and asked the campus community to come together.

But as Columbia grappled with several instances of antisemitism, the administration took stronger stances. In November, the school temporarily suspended two pro-Palestinian student groups — Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace — because the university said they had violated its policies.

Around the same time, the school’s leadership set up a task force to combat antisemitism, an attempt to address the “root causes” of campus hate. It also took some steps to restrict where and when student demonstrations could be held.

For some time, Columbia — and Dr. Shafik — seemed to avoid the firestorms embroiling other campuses.

This was largely because Dr. Shafik did not attend a congressional hearing in December on antisemitism on college campuses, because of a preplanned international trip. The presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and M.I.T. testified and were swiftly and intensely criticized for failing to clearly state that calling for the genocide of Jews would break their universities’ rules.

Days later, Columbia updated its own event policy page to say that calls for genocide were “abhorrent” and inconsistent with the school’s values. Promoting violence, the page said, would “not be tolerated.”

The presidents of Harvard and Penn soon resigned.

How She Fared in Congress

House Republicans reinvited Dr. Shafik to appear before the Education and Workforce Committee this month. On Wednesday during that appearance, they grilled Dr. Shafik about her institutions’s response to antisemitism.

She appeared to sidestep the land mines that helped precipitate the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and Penn. When questioned on whether calling for genocide violated the school’s code of conduct, she did not hedge in her answer: “Yes, it does,” she said.

And when asked whether a professor who described the Oct. 7 attacks as “awesome” would be removed from a leadership position, she ultimately said he would. “I think that would be — I think, I would, yes,” she said.

By the hearing’s end, some Republican lawmakers had commended the university’s leaders for acknowledging that Columbia had a problem.

But back at home, new troubles were brewing. Dr. Shafik’s conciliatory approach to the hearing was criticized by defenders of academic freedom, particularly her disclosures of ongoing probes into faculty members. One later said the hearing was the first time he had learned that he was the subject of an inquiry.

Irene Mulvey, the national president of the American Association of University Professors, said that the “public naming of professors under investigation to placate a hostile committee” set “a dangerous precedent.”

It had “echoes of the cowardice often displayed during the McCarthy era,” Ms. Mulvey added.

What Happened on Campus This Week

By the time Dr. Shafik returned to campus from Washington, D.C., a lush central campus lawn had been transformed into a makeshift protest site.

Pro-Palestinian students had organized an encampment with dozens of tents, and had given the university’s leaders a message: They would not leave until their demands — including that the school divest from businesses with ties to Israel — were met. Through Wednesday, they were joined by hundreds of other students.

The next day, the university’s administration took its most forceful step yet to crackdown on unauthorized demonstrations, asking the city’s Police Department to intervene.

Officers arrested at least 108 protesters and dismantled the encampment, as a large crowd shouted “Shame!” Some vowed that their spirits would not be shattered. “They can threaten us all they want with the police, but at the end of the day, it’s only going to lead to more mobilization,” Maryam Alwan, a pro-Palestinian organizer on campus, said.

After the protesters were arrested, Mayor Eric Adams defended Dr. Shafik and said that students did not “have a right to violate university policies and disrupt learning.” But the administration’s escalation drew swift criticism from legal groups, defenders of free speech and some faculty members.

“I’m really worried about a spiral in which suppressing protest is going to lead to more aggressive protest,” said Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism.

Dr. Shafik wrote to the campus on Thursday that she was taking an “extraordinary step because these are extraordinary circumstances.” The encampment, she said, “severely disrupts campus life, and creates a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students.”

Since then, she has not made any additional public statements.

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