Minouche Shafik: Universities must engage in serious soul searching on protests

Editor's note:

This article was published in the Financial Times

Minouche Shafik
May 09, 2024

When I was inaugurated as Columbia’s 20th president on October 4, 2023, I called for strengthening the bond between universities and society through a recommitment to academia’s contribution to the common good. The horrors of the Hamas attack three days later, the ensuing war with Israel and the tragic loss of civilian lives in Gaza have tested that bond in unimaginable ways. I have seen the campus engulfed in tensions and divisions deepened by powerful external forces.

The wave of protests, encampments, and building takeovers has since spread across the US and around the world. Whatever one thinks of the response of university leaders — denouncing hurtful rhetoric, enforcing rules and discipline, and summoning police to restore order — these are actions, not solutions. All of us who believe in higher education must now engage in serious soul searching about why this is happening. Only then can universities recover and begin to realise their potential to heal and unify.

From my perspective, there are two issues at stake. First, we must do a better job of defining the boundaries between the free speech rights of one part of our community and the rights of others to be educated in a place free of discrimination and harassment.

It would be a mistake to think that a small group of students with connections to the Arab world drove these protests. What I saw was a broad representation of young people of every ethnic and religious background — passionate, intelligent and committed. Unfortunately, the actions and antisemitic comments of some — especially among those from outside our community — stirred fear and discomfort. While civil disobedience aims to disrupt, the bounds of peaceful protest were crossed with the forceful takeover of a campus building.

Free speech is the bedrock of academic inquiry and excellence. The threats it faces are real — many places ban books, curricula are sometimes determined by politicians rather than educational experts and scholars are at serious risk in many countries.

For me, the lesson is clear. If colleges and universities cannot better define the boundaries between free speech and discrimination, government will move to fill that gap, and in ways that do not necessarily protect academic freedom. Just as our predecessors fought for desegregation and the admission of women, we need to create an educational environment where we fight all forms of prejudice, including against Arabs, Jews and Muslims.

"Rather than tearing ourselves apart, universities must rebuild the bonds within ourselves and between society and the academy based on our shared values and on what we do best: education, research, service and public engagement."

Second, what is the university’s role in the context of a major political crisis like the war in Gaza? There is a long history of political activism on campuses, which has contributed to many important examples of progress, such as opposition to the Vietnam war, the anti-apartheid struggle and the civil rights movement.

Over the past few weeks, we have engaged in serious, good faith dialogue with protesters. Columbia has offered to look at fresh proposals on shareholder activism and divestment, to reaffirm our commitment to free speech, to enhance access to our global centres and dual degree programmes, and to start programmes on health and education in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. We were unable to come to agreement but this cannot be the end of the dialogue.

The protests raise an important question about how universities contribute to the common good in a crisis such as that in the Middle East. Teaching students about the issues, arranging joint study visits and research programmes, enabling conversations that cannot happen in the halls of power, providing medical and mental health support to victims are all concrete examples. In the months ahead, universities need to bring a multitude of perspectives together to focus on what more we can do.

This crisis has also revealed how vulnerable universities are to those who seek to divide us. In normal times, students and faculty can hold different views and debate them vigorously in classrooms, labs and dorm rooms, often late into the night. When external forces step in, however, this delicate coexistence can fray. We have struggled all year to curtail the doxxing and the more incendiary protests that have taken place outside our gates, as well as the relentless barrage of social-media disinformation and hate speech. We need to be more realistic about the threats these pose and aggressive in countering their impact.

Rather than tearing ourselves apart, universities must rebuild the bonds within ourselves and between society and the academy based on our shared values and on what we do best: education, research, service and public engagement. If academic communities cannot serve as a place of civil debate, what hope is there for those in the midst of war? Universities must heal themselves in order to better contribute to healing the world.