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Image of Columbia president Minouche Shafik in front of a silhouette of the Capitol building

Shafik will answer to Congress with the benefit of hindsight—and perhaps lowered expectations.

Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images | HaizhanZheng/iStock/Getty Images | Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress

Four months after a Congressional hearing that helped sink two of her Ivy League counterparts, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik is heading to Capitol Hill for a showdown with lawmakers on Wednesday.

Shafik originally had been asked to appear alongside three other college presidents as part of a Dec. 5 hearing on antisemitism. But she declined the invitation, citing a travel conflict. In her absence, Congress grilled Harvard University president Claudine Gay, University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Sally Kornbluth on antisemitism on college campuses, where tensions had exploded since Hamas attacked Israel Oct. 7, sparking a brutal retaliatory war in Gaza. Allegations of blatant antisemitism had emerged amid the demonstrations on many campuses, and the House Education and Workforce Committee decided to investigate.

Join us Wednesday for live analysis of the hearing on antisemitism at Columbia, starting at 10:15 a.m.

The Dec. 5 hearing was widely seen as a disaster for the three presidents, all of whom equivocated when asked about condemning hypothetical calls for genocide at their institutions. Magill stepped down on Dec. 9 under pressure from lawmakers and powerful donors. Gay soon followed, resigning on Jan. 2 amid swirling plagiarism allegations that compounded her widely criticized performance before Congress. Only Kornbluth at MIT has hung onto her job.

While the three presidents faced off against Congress, Shafik was speaking at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai.

Now she is walking into the same situation, which some observers have described as a political trap set by Congressional Republicans critical not only of campus leaders’ response to antisemitism but also of higher education in general.

Why Columbia?

GOP officials have had Columbia in their crosshairs almost since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

“Some of the worst cases of antisemitic assaults, harassment, and vandalism on campus have occurred at Columbia University,” North Carolina representative Virginia Foxx, the Republican chairwoman of the House Education and Workforce Committee said in a March statement. “Due to the severe and pervasive nature of these cases, and the Columbia administration’s failure to enforce its own policies to protect Jewish students, the Committee must hear from Columbia’s leadership in person to learn how the school is addressing antisemitism on its campus.”

In a Feb. 12 letter to Columbia, Foxx raised concerns about a number of alleged incidents, accusing the university of fostering a decades-long “environment of pervasive antisemitism.” Foxx cited concerns that emerged in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, pointing specifically to incidents in which students were allegedly targeted for being Israeli, Jewish, or both, and subjected to antisemitic slurs.

Asked why the committee targeted Columbia, Harvard, Penn and MIT—ultra-wealthy, highly selective institutions that command significant media attention but educate only a tiny fraction of college students in the U.S.—an official said concerns of antisemitism are high on those campuses.

“Chairwoman Foxx reached out to universities that have been at the center of the rise in antisemitic protests,” committee spokesperson Nick Barley told Inside Higher Ed by email.

Beyond the hearing, the committee has also demanded a trove of documents, including “all reports of antisemitic acts or incidents and related documents and communications since January 1, 2021,” as well as details of how Columbia has responded to allegations of hate crimes, according to Foxx’s letter.

Columbia officials have said little publicly going into the hearing. A university spokesperson declined to share an advanced copy of Shafik’s written testimony to Congress, pointing instead to her past statements condemning antisemitism.

“Columbia is committed to combating antisemitism and we welcome the opportunity to discuss our work to protect and support Jewish students and keep our community safe,” the spokesperson said by email, declining to answer additional questions from Inside Higher Ed.

Walking a Tightrope

Shafik was born in Egypt, but political and economic turmoil forced her family to move to the U.S. during her childhood. Trained as an economist, she worked in global development, holding posts at the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England. Most recently, she served as president of the London School of Economics and Political Science, from 2017 until last year.

Now she will face Congress a mere eight months into her presidency at Columbia.

Like Shafik, the presidents who appeared at the December hearing were all women and all relatively new to their positions. Kornbluth, who began at MIT in January 2023, was the longest-serving of the presidents summoned to Capitol Hill. While the previous hearing featured only the presidents, Shafik will be flanked by Columbia Board of Trustees co-chairs Claire Shipman and David Greenwald.

Columbia declined to share any details about how Shafik has prepared for the hearing. But outside experts noted that she heads to Capitol Hill with the benefit of hindsight, having seen her peers flounder and be vilified.

“I think a lot of people were surprised that three presidents of such prominent universities couldn’t clearly articulate an ethical position about hate speech on their campuses and antisemitism in particular,” said Karl Schonberg, a professor of government at St. Lawrence University, who has argued that Kornbluth, Gay and Magill failed to speak with moral clarity.

The narrative transcended higher education, he added. To his point, the disastrous hearing was even panned on Saturday Night Live, with actors poking fun at the presidents’ evasive answers.

“It felt very defensive, it felt like they weren’t clear about what their own policies were, they weren’t willing to make strong statements,” Schonberg said. “My take on it was it looked like they had spent a lot of time talking with their lawyers and being told what not to say.”

Penn trustee Scott Bok, who stepped down following Magill’s resignation, essentially admitted as much in a statement saying that the president was “over prepared and over lawyered given the hostile forum and high stakes.” As a result, she “provided a legalistic answer to a moral question,” he added.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said Shafik would be wise not to repeat the mistakes of her peers. Hess, who has argued the three presidents failed to cultivate conservative allies, stressed the “importance of working both sides of the aisle” and building relationships with committee Republicans—something he suggested Columbia should be doing before the hearing.

Shafik should also come ready to discuss specific incidents likely to be raised, Hess said, pointing to a recent Congressional roundtable on antisemitism in which a Columbia student alleged she and other Jewish students had been subjected to discrimination at the university. That incident, he suggested, will likely come up and Congress will want to know how Columbia officials have handled it and whether they have met with students experiencing antisemitism.

But he believes Shafik also has the benefit of lowered expectations for this hearing.

“The big advantage going into this, because of the train wreck in December, is the bar is set really low. If you show up and seem to be reasonably responsive and not trying to throw snark at the Republican members, you have a chance to look really good in comparison,” Hess said.

Both Hess and Schonberg believe that Shafik needs to come armed with policy specifics, ready to answer questions from critical Republicans by offering examples of Columbia’s response to alleged incidents of antisemitism and of its efforts to protect both students and free speech.

For the best possible outcome, Schonberg said, Shafik needs to offer a defense of academic freedom and free speech on college campuses while illustrating how Columbia prevents hate and other speech from suppressing the robust exchange of ideas on campus, which he argues is the role of higher education.

What she absolutely must not do is repeat the missteps made in the last hearing, he said.

Hess believes that Shafik is walking a tightrope. While she has to avoid angering Republicans and sparking public outrage, he said, Shafik also has to appease “leftists on campus” and her peers across higher education by not crumbling before the committee.

“I think, for the industry, the worst case scenario is that you give the Republicans cause to double down and argue that even with a four months heads up, higher education leadership is incapable of seeing and addressing the problems,” Hess said. “But if you want to have a career in higher ed, having the higher ed community decide you’re a sellout is a big danger in itself.”

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