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Columbia president Nemat Shafik testified before the House Education and the Workforce Committee about antisemitism at college campuses.

Credit: Ethan Young

Columbia University's leadership underwent questioning from the United States House Committee on Education and the Workforce during an April 17 hearing about antisemitism concerns on campus.

In many regards, the hearing resembled the December 2023 hearing in which Education Committee members grilled former Penn President Liz Magill about the state of antisemitism on Penn's campus. While Columbia President and former Penn professor Minouche Shafik avoided responses similar to those that contributed to Magill's resignation, she was charged with allowing Columbia to become a “hub of antisemitic behavior and thought” in recent months.

In the hearing, which lasted more than three hours, four Columbia University officials — Shafik, Board of Trustees Co-Chairs Claire Shipman and David Greenwald, and antisemitism task force Co-Chair David Schizer — sought to quell critics who allege that the institution has transformed into a center for antisemitic behavior and ideology. 

While Shafik was originally asked to testify at the December 2023 hearing alongside Magill and the presidents of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her testimony before Congress was moved due to scheduling conflicts. Claudine Gay, the former Harvard president, resigned less than a month after the hearing amid accusations of plagiarism. 

In her written submission to the Committee, which was filed before the hearing, Shafik said that she is “personally frustrated to find that Columbia’s policies and structures were sometimes unable to meet the moment” in addressing campus antisemitism. She added that the university’s disciplinary policies and system were “not designed to address the types of events and protests that followed the Oct. 7 [Hamas] attack [on Israel].” 

In her opening remarks, Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) claimed that “Columbia stands guilty of gross negligence at best, and at worst has become a platform for those supporting terrorism and violence against the Jewish people.”

Early in the hearing, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) asked the question which led to criticism of Magill, Gay, and MIT president Sally Kornbluth — whether calls "for the genocide of Jews violate Columbia's code of conduct." 

All four witnesses immediately answered in the affirmative.

Rep. Aaron Bean (R-Fla.) congratulated the Columbia leaders for responding to the committee members' queries better than Magill and Gay did, citing their readiness to condemn antisemitism.

“You are saying the right things,” Bean said.

Greenwald, a 1980 Wharton graduate and chair of the Wharton Alumni Executive Board, served on the Columbia presidential search committee that selected Shafik and was elected as co-chair of Columbia's Board of Trustees in late 2023. He said the university appreciated “the opportunity to assist the committee in its important effort to examine antisemitism on college campuses.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) — whose line of questioning prompted the most scrutiny of the three presidents who testified in the December 2023 hearing — was seemingly unable to replicate a similar attention-grabbing moment with Shafik. When questioned about disciplinary action against Mohamed Abdou, a visiting professor who posted pro-Hamas remarks on Oct. 11, 2023, Shafik stated that the professor would “never teach at Columbia again.” 

Shafik, however, refused to condemn the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as antisemitic when pressed by Stefanik to discipline students for saying it. Her response was instead that “we are looking at it.”

Another target of questioning was Columbia professor Joseph Massad, a longstanding critic of Israel and scholar of Palestinian Christian descent. Republican representatives accused Massad of “glorifying” the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in an article which described it as “awesome.” 

When pressed by Stefanik to commit to removing Massad from a leadership post, Shafik hesitated before responding “I think, I would, yes.” After the hearing, a university spokesman told The New York Times that Massad’s term as chair of an academic review panel was already set to end after the current semester.

Rep. Rick Allen (R-Ga.), who referenced the biblical book of Genesis and mandates to protect Jewish students, asked Shafik, “Do you want Columbia University to be cursed by God?” 

“Absolutely not,” Shafik replied. 

The hearing took place amid escalating tensions on Columbia’s campus, with over 100 pro-Palestinian students occupying the main lawn as Shafik testified. Some of Columbia’s Jewish faculty members warned against the “weaponization” of debates around antisemitism, arguing it could hinder open discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Columbia University is under investigation by both the House education committee and the United States Department of Education regarding alleged civil rights violations on campus. Penn is also under investigation by the Committee, and was formerly under investigation by the DOE before its investigation was dismissed due to the existence of a lawsuit with the same allegations.

The House education committee has already scheduled a followup hearing next month focused on public school systems in New York; Montgomery County, Md.; and Berkeley, Calif.