Columbia president testifies before House on campus antisemitism

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., speaks during the hearing on "Columbia in Crisis: Columbia University's Response to Antisemitism" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday.

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., speaks during the hearing on "Columbia in Crisis: Columbia University's Response to Antisemitism" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday. (Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press)

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NEW YORK — "We have significant and important work to do to address antisemitism on our campus," Columbia University President Nemat "Minouche" Shafik said before a congressional committee Wednesday.

Opening her testimony before the Committee on Education and the Workforce, Shafik said, "trying to reconcile the free speech rights of those who want to protest and the rights of Jewish students to be in an environment free of harassment or discrimination has been the central challenge on our campus."

"The last six months on our campus have served as an extreme pressure test," Claire Shipman, co-chair of Columbia's board of trustees, said. "Our systems were not equipped to manage the unfolding situation."

Shafik said the university has since created a task force to address antisemitism, which released its first report calling for "stronger enforcement of our policy." David Schizer, former Columbia Law School dean and co-chair of the task force, said the school needs to improve its rules around demonstrations. He said the right to protest must be preserved and also proposed that academic buildings be off-limits for demonstrations.

In addition to creating the task force, Shafik said the school had updated its process for holding demonstrations on campus.

Shafik and university officials faced criticism from lawmakers about the response to antisemitism on campus. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chairwoman of the committee, said that Columbia hasn't protected students on campus from antisemitism. "We have seen far too little, far too late done to counter that and protect students and staff," she said.

At the heart of the hearing was what universities have grappled with since Oct. 7: How to help Jewish and Muslim students feel safe on campus while also preserving the right for students to demonstrate.

Additionally, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., asked Shafik a similar question that was asked to three other university president presidents: do calls for the genocide of Jews violate Columbia's code of conduct? All four Columbia officials testifying before Congress said that yes, it did.

Just four months earlier, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, Harvard University President Claudine Gay and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth were asked the same question. The moment went viral and later, Magill and Gay stepped down from their positions.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., asked why some students from a pro-Palestinian group were suspended after an event called "Resistance 101″ and if the university was sure they participated in the event. Shafik said, "They refused to cooperate with the investigation, and so until they do so, they are suspended."

Omar also asked if Shafik had seen anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-Jewish or anti-Palestinian protests on campus and she said she had not.

Jessie Appleby, program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, spoke to the Deseret News after the hearing and expressed concerns about what Columbia officials said regarding changing policies.

Appleby said the organization is investigating what's going on with the ability of students and faculty on campus to express their viewpoints. She said the foundation was also looking at the possible further restrictions to campus demonstrations. "All of that is extremely chilling to student and faculty's speech."

When speaking about the portion of the hearing where Columbia officials were asked if calls to genocide violate the code of conduct policy, Appleby said it should be considered protected speech unless "it was part of a pattern of behavior that was so severe and pervasive that it rose to the level of harassing" or if it was "combined with a true threat or somehow made into a true threat."

Without meeting those conditions, Appleby said the speech is protected. Overall, she thought that Shafik was "trying to walk a delicate line" when it comes to free speech.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, was more critical of Shafik and expressed that he did not think the university was doing enough to protect students on campus. Calling out a specific professor by name, Owens questioned why he was still employed by Columbia after calling the Oct. 7 attack on Israel "stunning, awesome and astonishing."

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continue to see antisemitism on campus as an issue.

Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Tim Scott, R-S.C., introduced the Antisemitism Awareness Act which would direct the U.S. Department of Education to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism.

The legislation includes in its definitions of antisemitism calling for the killing or harming of Jewish people, perpetuating stereotypical allegations about Jewish people, drawing comparisons between Israeli policy and the Nazis, accusing Jewish citizens of having more loyalty to Israel than their own nation and "denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination."

"Jewish students should feel safe and protected from harassment on college campuses," Crapo said in a release. "This bill would provide much-needed guidance for universities so that antisemitic behavior is not tolerated at any level of America's education system."

The bill has bipartisan support including from Sens. Krysten Sinema, I-Ariz., Christopher Coons, D-Del., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Katie Britt, R-Ala., John Fetterman, D-Pa., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., John Cornyn, R-Texas, and others.

"Our nation's institutions of higher learning have become hotbeds of antisemitism, especially in the wake of the brutal attacks against Israel and innocent civilians by Hamas and Iran," Scott said. "It's critical the Department of Education has the tools and resources it needs to investigate antisemitism and root out this vile hatred wherever it rears its ugly head."

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