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

By Columbia University President Minouche Shafik:

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 realize 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.

Read the rest of the article in the Financial Times.