Dear President Nemat Minouche Shafik,

As a former Columbia University faculty member and father of a Columbia graduate (PhD ’21), I am quite frankly appalled by your draconian, unethical, illegal, and dishonest actions toward your own students and faculty.

In the name of keeping students safe, you bring the NYPD on campus to break up a peaceful encampment, thereby endangering hundreds of student protesters—many of whom are Jewish students and students of color—and the campus community at large. Given the NYPD’s racist record, the fact that you would subject Black, Latinx, Arab and South Asian students to police repression suggests that you are either unaware or indifferent to the trauma our communities have experienced with the police. And your administration’s decision to evict students from their dorms, strip them of their meal cards, and have them charged with trespassing is nothing less than vindictive. After taking their tuition and fees, you render them houseless and potentially food insecure. How does this make students safe? As president, you must be well aware of the number of financially vulnerable students enrolled at Columbia.

In forty years, I have never seen such brazen cruelty toward students and faculty.

In the name of keeping students safe, you suspend chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) for organizing a peaceful protest in order to draw attention to Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza and its escalation of violence in the West Bank. When two students attacked an antiwar rally on the steps of Low Memorial Library on January 19 by dousing the assembled with a foul-smelling chemical agent, sending several people to the hospital, what did you do to keep students safe? The assailants were not arrested, and although Columbia’s interim provost announced that they were banned from campus soon after the attacks, the decision to suspend them was made public just a few days ago. Instead, you brought the NYPD to campus to suppress a follow-up protest organized to call attention to the attack.

When Mohsen Mahdawi, a Palestinian student, received death threats from someone involved in a counterprotest, no one called for an investigation or took affirmative steps to keep him safe. And when will you release a statement expressing deep sympathy for all of your Palestinian students who have lost family and friends to Israel’s military onslaught?

When antiwar students are being doxxed for allegedly supporting “terrorism” and their names and faces are splashed onto sites like Canary Mission, what do you do to protect them? And why on Earth would you allow police and university employees to literally destroy food donated for the Gaza encampment, or, as reported by Columbia student journalists, permit the NYPD to bar a student from getting medication from their dorm room? As you may or may not know, that student reportedly had a seizure as a consequence of not having their meds.

Why has Professor Shai Davidai, who targets and identifies antiwar students on his social media account, putting their safety in jeopardy, not been suspended, while peaceful student protesters have not only been arrested but also suspended and denied their right to finish the academic term? How is it that you would threaten both Professor Joseph Massad and Professor Mohamed Abdou, two distinguished scholars, with removal, suspension, or outright dismissal, during a live televised hearing and lie about their employment statuses and stoke the Congressional committee’s false allegations? And why would you deliberately misrepresent Professor Katherine Franke’s remarks about Israeli students who served in the IDF? In your desperate effort to deflect attacks from the likes of Elise Stefanik, you have abandoned the principles of academic freedom—including our obligation to engage in truthful, accurate, and nuanced discourse—and sacrificed the safety of our colleagues. Your “testimony” played right into the hands of members of the committee who want to destroy the university.

Columbia has a history of throwing its faculty under the bus, as it were, especially when it comes to colleagues critical of Israel. I witnessed the vicious attacks on Joseph Massad and Rashid Khalidi in the early 2000s, and many of us tried to stand up for them and others against an indifferent and even hostile administration. But in my nearly forty years as a faculty member, I have never seen such brazen cruelty toward students and faculty, such cowardice before what amounts to a right-wing witch hunt, and such blatant dishonesty. Indeed, in your recent statement you claim that you had no choice but to call police to clear the encampment, and give your decision a patina of legality by asserting that you invoked Section 444 of the University Statutes. But that section requires that you consult with the University Senate Executive Committee before authorizing police to come on campus, and according to at least three executive committee members, including its chair, you made the decision unilaterally.

I need not say much else. You’ve been condemned by your faculty, by the majority of students, and by scholars and human rights activists around the world. You are keeping no one safe, except for your donors, trustees, and Columbia’s endowment. Among these same trustees and donors are persons who have vowed to punish these students by blocking them from future employment.

Students are doing what you should be doing: leading.

Universities are not supposed to resemble dictatorships or Fortune 500 companies, irrespective of the size of their endowments. Faculty governance, intellectual honesty, the robust defense of academic freedom, and students’ right to peaceful free expression are core principles of the university. As stewards of institutions tasked with educating, housing, and protecting young people (many of whom are teenagers far from home), university leaders are responsible for their safety and well-being. I suspect that your previous executive and managerial posts in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Bank of England did not prepare you to lead a university. As you yourself stated in your testimony before Congress, Columbia’s student disciplinary policies and processes “were sometimes unable to meet the moment,” leaving your administration no choice but to change the rules without input from faculty or forewarning to students. To declare by fiat that a peaceful outdoor protest poses “a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University” is a radical redefinition of “danger” reminiscent of the Red Scare or antiterrorism laws.

Sadly, you are not alone in turning to state repression to silence students. The presidents of Yale, Princeton, Emory, the University of Southern California, the University of Texas at Austin, the Ohio State University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Emerson, among others, have also called the police against nonviolent protests and encampments. This is a dark day for U.S. higher education, especially at a time when right-wing extremists are waging war on academic freedom and all manner of critical studies.

Yet, as the courageous students you had arrested and suspended have been saying, it is a much darker day for the people of Palestine. Gaza’s universities are now rubble, many of its faculty, staff, students, and administrators—including three university presidents—have been killed, and most of its libraries, archives, and bookstores destroyed. These students are risking their futures to demand that universities divest their holdings from Israel and weapons manufacturers, and that their leaders act in an ethical manner—in how they invest, how they relate to their own neighboring communities, and how they treat students, faculty, and staff.

In other words, they are doing what you should be doing: leading. It is time to follow their lead, listen to their demands, acknowledge the loss of tens of thousands of Palestinian lives, stop funding apartheid and genocide, drop all charges against the protesters, restore their student status, give them complete amnesty, apologize, and issue a strong statement condemning the genocide and offering condolences and support to community members who have lost family and friends.

Independent and nonprofit, Boston Review relies on reader funding. To support work like this, please donate here.