Nemat Shafik: Columbia president loses no-confidence vote after protest crackdown

University president faces backlash from staff and students over her handling of historic anti-war protests

Columbia University president Nemat Shafik visits Hamilton Hall on the campus of Columbia University, in New York City, on May 1. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest on Israel-Gaza

Columbia University's faculty of arts and sciences on Thursday passed a vote of no confidence against president Nemat Shafik, after she twice called New York police to crack down on pro-Palestine student protests.

Ms Shafik has faced opposition from staff and students after she ordered a temporary police presence on campus in response to student demonstrations calling for the university to divest from Israel and its action in Gaza, and cancelled the main graduation event this month.

The university's Columbia Spectator newspaper said arts and sciences dean Amy Hungerford had announced that 65 per cent of the 709 faculty members who took part voted to pass the no-confidence motion.

The faculty of arts and sciences represents about 20 per cent of Columbia's full-time faculty staff, the Spectator said.

Faculty do not have the power to remove or appoint a university leader.

Professors at Barnard College, an affiliated Columbia institution, also took part in the vote, after voting for no confidence in their president, Laura Rosenbury, in April.

In a joint statement, Barnard and Columbia lecturers, as part of the American Association of University Professors organisation, gave a list of reasons for their rebuke of Ms Shafik.

The motion for no confidence highlights her “failure to resist politically motivated attacks on higher education in her Congressional testimony”, they wrote.

Ms Shafik testified in Congress after politicians sought information on how she had handled claims of anti-Semitism on campus following the Hamas-led October 7 attack on Israel.

Shortly after, students set up camp on one of Columbia's lawns in its Upper West Side campus in New York City, before more than 100 people were arrested, of which inspired similar protests at dozens of other US universities.

Columbia and Barnard faculty criticised Ms Shafik's “willingness to allow Congress to interfere in confidential decisions regarding faculty hiring", and her “decision to invite armed police on to the Columbia campus”, according to the joint statement.

University spokesman Ben Chang said in a statement to The National: "President Shafik continues to consult regularly with members of the community, including faculty, administration and trustees, as well as with state, city and community leaders.

"She appreciates the efforts of those working alongside her on the long road ahead to heal our community."

After the first mass arrests, Columbia students established a new anti-war camp that lasted for days while protest organisers faced suspension and National Guard threats during negotiations with the university.

Ms Shafik later called the New York Police Department when talks collapsed and protesters occupied an academic building.

“This series of actions not only endangered our students; more broadly, it represents a serious threat to the core values of the university: academic freedom, shared governance, freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly,” the faculty statement read.

Ms Shafik's “choices to eschew democratic processes have undermined the faculty's confidence in her and her leadership team".

An university official told The National that it was estimated that 80 per cent of Columbia's total faculty did not take part.

The official also said that the vote is non-binding and does not commit the university to measures.

Updated: May 17, 2024, 7:24 AM