Columbia University President Faces Difficult Road Ahead as Students Protest on Campus

Representative Elise Stefanik leaned into the microphone and volleyed a series of questions at the university president sitting in front of her. It was about three hours into a congressional hearing examining antisemitism at Columbia University, and the president, Nemat Shafik, paused, sighed and gave a nervous laugh.

Ms. Stefanik had asked whether the university would remove a professor who praised the Oct. 7 Hamas attack from a role as chair of the university’s academic review committee.

After a few seconds, Dr. Shafik responded. “I think that would be — I think, I would, yes. Let me come back with yes,” she said.

Republican lawmakers on the House Committee on Education and the Work Force had come ready to pounce. They tested for weaknesses and prodded vulnerabilities, while their witnesses, a group of Columbia leaders, seemed conciliatory.

And yet, by the end, it seemed Dr. Shafik and other campus leaders had successfully diffused Republican lines of attack, repeatedly and vigorously agreeing that antisemitism was a serious problem on their campus and vowing that they would do more to fight it.

But as Dr. Shafik spoke, the tempest that she had been brought in to account for appeared to intensify. Back on campus in Manhattan, pro-Palestinian students erected an encampment with dozens of tents on a central campus lawn, vowing not to move until Columbia divested from companies with ties to Israel and met other demands. Hundreds of other students joined them to rally throughout the day.

The split-screen moment offered a glimpse of the precarious landscape and perilous choices Dr. Shafik still faces as she comes home from the antisemitism hearing. The protesting students, and the hundreds of others who have chanted and marched at pro-Palestinian rallies, along with dozens of supportive faculty members, have repeatedly rejected a point their leaders largely conceded on Wednesday in Washington — that their activism was antisemitic and should be punished.

“I think that antisemitism is horrible, but I don’t think that using the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism as an excuse to crack down on pro-Palestine advocacy is justifiable or related in any sense,” said Maryam Alwan, a senior and pro-Palestinian organizer on campus, speaking from the tent encampment.

“And I think the fact that we are doing this on the day of the hearing,” she added, “I think it’s a testament to the fact that we truly will only rise stronger every time they crack down.”

How Dr. Shafik navigates this tension may well define her early presidency, even if the initial fallout from her appearance turns out to be far less than what faced her Ivy League colleagues at an earlier hearing in December. After that hearing, the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania were pushed out of their positions, having given lawyerly answers to the question of whether calling for the genocide of Jews would violate campus rules.

In an opinion piece published this week, Dr. Shafik acknowledged the dilemma confronting college leaders trying to stay true to values of academic freedom while also trying to keep students safe and preventing discrimination.

“Trying to reconcile the speech rights of one part of our community with the rights of another part of our community to live in a supportive environment or at least an environment free of fear, harassment and discrimination, has been the central challenge at our university and on campuses across the country,” she wrote.

Ms. Shafik appeared at the hearing with the chairs of her board of trustees, Claire Shipman and David Greenwald, and with a senior law professor, David Schizer, who is a co-chair of the school’s antisemitism task force. From the beginning, the witnesses made clear that they were not going to take an oppositional stance.

“I am grateful,” Ms. Shipman said in her opening remarks, “for the spotlight that you are putting on this ancient hatred, and the critical role you play holding our most important institutions to account.”

The audience was friendly. Some student activists who support Palestinian rights had traveled from New York to attend, but they were excluded from the hearing room, which had very limited seats for the public. They shouted periodically from outside, “Let the students in.”

Inside the room, a row of about 20 Jewish students who have expressed concern about antisemitism at Columbia were given seats by arrangement with the committee. Some of them said afterward that what they heard from Dr. Shafik was a good start. Others wanted Columbia to go further.

Xavier Westergaard, a Ph.D. student in biology, said that he was disappointed when Dr. Shafik did not clearly state that some of Columbia faculty were antisemitic, even though the president did concede, under questioning, that some had said antisemitic things.

“The people who say antisemitic things are antisemitic,” he said. “It’s a very, very easy line to draw.” He said such professors should be fired.

But back in New York, where the hearing was playing on a big screen at a student center, the reaction was often much different.

Debbie Becher, one of more than 20 Jewish professors at Columbia and Barnard who have objected to what they call the weaponization of antisemitism by the congressional committee, was deeply upset.

“In today’s hearing, members of Congress tried to exert control over the university, and university leadership largely gave into their pressure,” she said. “President Shafik’s concessions to the committee set dangerous new precedents for university policy.”

The hearing room was full of lawmakers for the first several hours, but toward the end, some members trickled out of the room. Ms. Stefanik, who had so effectively acted as chief prosecutor for the Republicans in the December hearing, was as aggressive in her questioning as ever. She managed to catch Dr. Shafik off guard several times, particularly when she was questioned at length about why professors whose statements she conceded were abhorrent were still teaching on campus.

But this time, a few of her fellow party members also praised Columbia’s officials for doing better in the hearing than their Ivy League peers.

After the hearing ended, more protesters gathered on Broadway, outside the campus gates in Manhattan. They hoisted signs reading “Israel is starving Palestinians” and “Cease Genocide.” Several had verbal confrontations with police officers, who had begun boxing the protesters in with a maze of barricades. Others, delayed in getting to class, shook their heads in frustration.

Jin Hokkee, 23, a pre-med student at Columbia, waved a Palestinian flag. He said that the demonstration was influenced by the Washington testimony. “A lot of people don’t understand what we’re about, we’re not against Jewish people, we are showing support for people in Gaza,” he said.

Behind him, in call-and-response style, the demonstrators shouted some of the refrains that lawmakers had condemned earlier in the day.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”

“Intifada, intifada, long live the intifada!”

A Columbia graduate student, Kim Silberman, 22, standing beside a man with a photo of an Israeli hostage, said that her parents moved from Israel to America after an attack had killed several of their neighbors.

“It’s really hard being a Jewish student here right now,” she said. “I would never have come here if I had known this was the case.”

Anusha Bayya and Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

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