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Who is Nemat Shafik, Columbia’s president under fire?

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She is a baroness, an economist, an immigrant, a Muslim American and president of Columbia University, which made international headlines this week as a campus in turmoil over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It’s turmoil many on and off campus blame Nemat “Minouche” Shafik for exacerbating, though others have praised her moves to address the unrest. 

Protesters are demanding an end to the war in Gaza and divestment from companies that contract with Israel’s military. Some Jewish and Israeli students on campus accuse protesters of fomenting antisemitism. 

Many lambasted Shafik Thursday after she authorized a police crackdown on students who had pitched tents — they call it the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” — on Columbia’s lawn. More than 100 people were arrested.. That followed her testimony before a Congressional committee the day before, where some House members grilled her on the college’s response to antisemitism, while others questioned her commitment to protecting pro-Palestinian speech.

In the past six months, she said Wednesday, it became clear that Columbia was not prepared for “the unprecedented scale of the challenges we faced.”

On social media, on trucks driving around the New York City campus, and at a virtual press conference Friday hosted by Columbia professors and anti-war activists, many have called for her resignation.

Two other Ivy League college presidents — Liz Magill at the University of Pennsylvania and Claudine Gay of Harvard — have resigned over accusations that they mishandled protests over Gaza and Israel on campus. Shafik this week signaled that she intends to keep her job.

I know together we will emerge as a stronger and more cohesive community,” she said.

From Egypt to Florida

Shafik, 61, is both first woman and first person of Middle Eastern heritage to head Columbia University.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, she and her family fled political upheaval in the mid-1960s when she was four. She grew up during the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement in Georgia, North Carolina and Florida.

She noted her Southern upbringing in her opening statement Wednesday to the House Committee on Education & the Workforce. “My public schooling allowed me to engage with and learn from people with a wide array of backgrounds and experience overcoming discrimination firsthand,” she said. 

Shafik graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1983, and went on to earn a masters in economics from the London School of Economics and then a Ph.D in economics from the University of Oxford.

She held influential positions in major international institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, before she re-entered academia. She was named president of the London School of Economics in 2017. She became president of Columbia University on July 1. 

In 2017 she won the British Muslim Awards’ Leader in Finance prize. And in 2020 she became a member of the House of Lords, appointed as a “crossbench peer,” meaning that she is not affiliated with a political party. That gave her the “baroness” title.

Shafik has been married to molecular biologist Rafael Jovine since 2002, and the couple has twins, as well as Jovine’s three adult children from a previous marriage.

Then came Oct. 7 

Three months after she was installed at Columbia, Hamas attacked Southern Israel and Israel retaliated in Gaza. The war has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians. During the first days of the war, students began protesting against Israel— more intensely and frequently than students at most other campuses.

Under Shafik’s leadership, Columbia designated areas for protests, sometimes closing the university’s gates to the public, and disciplined  students who demonstrated outside these zones. In November, two student activist groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and the campus chapter for Jewish Voice for Peace, were suspended after organizing an unauthorized walkout in violation of school policies.

Earlier this month, four students were suspended for their involvement in “Resistance 101” an event at which several people expressed support for Hamas. And on Thursday, the university suspended three students for their involvement in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment.  

Shafik, in November also established an antisemitism task force — chaired by David Schizer, a law professor who is Jewish. The task force was charged to address Jewish students’ security concerns and to respond to antisemitic incidents, including the discovery of a swastika drawn on a bathroom wall on campus and an alleged assault of a Jewish pro-Israel student. Columbia published a report earlier this month recommending “non-confrontational ways” to stop unauthorized protests and a simpler process for filing complaints on discrimination and antisemitism. 

But the Republican lawmakers who organized Wednesday’s hearing still had harsh words for Shafik.

“The problem is, action on campus doesn’t match your rhetoric today,” said Rep. Aaron Bean, a Republican from Florida. “Your students, their message is quite different. Their message is one of fear.”

Backlash 

The suspensions and arrests have infuriated many at Columbia who accuse Shafik of repudiating the university’s commitment to free speech. Nara Milanich, a professor of history at Barnard College, said during Friday’s press conference that Shafik “ceded the question of academic freedom to people outside the university who have different values, different agendas and who have their political motives.” Milanich, who co-authored a letter from Jewish faculty members prior to the hearing that implored Shafik to reject Republican attacks on Columbia, said, “None of the disciplinary actions or policies that have been pursued by the administration in the past six months have made Jews or anyone else safer.” 

Shafik is also coming under attack from critics far from Columbia. Moira Donegan, a Guardian columnist, wrote on Friday that by dispersing the accusations that her university was too deferential to a progressive cause, Shafik “betrayed not only her students, but the values of the university itself.”

On Thursday, NYC Mayor Eric Adams defended Shafik and said that students “have every right to express their sorrow, but that heartbreak does not give you the right to harass others, to spread hate.”

The post Who is Nemat Shafik, Columbia’s president under fire? appeared first on The Forward.

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