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Columbia president tells lawmakers at antisemitism hearing there is a 'moral crisis'


The president of Columbia University spent three hours on Capitol Hill yesterday, telling Congress that in the months since Hamas attacked Israel and Israel began its military response, her school has been doing all it can to fight antisemitism on campus.


MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Antisemitism has no place on our campus, and I am personally committed to doing everything I can to confront it directly.

FADEL: Her testimony came months after a similar hearing helped prompt the resignations of the presidents of Penn and Harvard. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has more.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: There were a lot fewer fireworks at this House Education Committee hearing than at the one in December, which saw the presidents of Penn, MIT and Harvard get caught up in legalese or lengthy contextual scenarios in their answers. In Wednesday's hearing, Columbia's president, Minouche Shafik, alongside two Columbia trustees and a law professor, were quick to establish they would be clear in their language denouncing antisemitism. Take this early exchange with Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon.


SUZANNE BONAMICI: Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Columbia's code of conduct?

DAVID GREENWALD: Yes, it does.

CLAIRE SHIPMAN: Yes, it does.

SHAFIK: Yes, it does.

DAVID SCHIZER: Yes, it does.

NADWORNY: All four witnesses from Columbia say yes very clearly. Columbia, like many campuses, has struggled to balance free speech with the safety of its students at a time when Jewish students on college campuses have experienced a stark increase in antisemitic incidents following October 7, according to the Anti-Defamation League. In many of the Columbia officials' answers, they agreed with lawmaker's anger and said they had work to do on campus.

There were still moments of tension in the hearing. Lawmakers, including Tim Walberg, a Republican from Michigan, and Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, pushed hard on specific incidents of Columbia professors who had made comments in support of Hamas.


KATHY MANNING: Why is that professor still teaching at Columbia?

SHAFIK: He has been spoken to.

TIM WALBERG: He's been spoken to? I have your answer.

ELISE STEFANIK: What was he told? Any other disciplinary actions taken?

NADWORNY: In response, the college leaders vowed to hold faculty members accountable for antisemitic speech.

CHRISTOPHER ARMSTRONG: I thought the witnesses approached this hearing today in a very candid and sincere way.

NADWORNY: Christopher Armstrong, a lawyer at Holland & Knight who advises clients on how to respond to congressional investigations, said he thought the Columbia officials did well under pressure.

ARMSTRONG: It was clear they recognize this is a very real challenge on campus, and it's something colleges across the country are wrestling with.

NADWORNY: In the hearing, President Shafik repeatedly said that education was key and vowed to include lessons on antisemitism at orientations for new students. What do current students think?

JACOB SCHMELTZ: We were all watching it on a big TV, taking notes and commenting and responding.

NADWORNY: Jacob Schmeltz is a senior at Columbia studying political science and a co-vice president of the Jewish On Campus Student Union.

SCHMELTZ: I'm really happy that they finally made a really clear statement that this is an issue and acknowledged just how difficult it has been for Jewish students over the last six months.

NADWORNY: He says he'll be watching to see if their words match their actions on campus. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.