Competing pressures of activism, order test colleges amid protests

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When Minouche Shafik was appointed as the 20th president of Columbia University last July, she was asked to describe her leadership style. The Egyptian-born, U.S.-educated economist told the school’s alumni magazine that she wouldn’t be seeking the spotlight. 

After 10 days of tumult at Columbia, that is no longer an option for a university president who’s being assailed from all sides – students, faculty, and even politicians – for her handling of a spiraling crisis that has now spread to colleges and universities across the country. Months of protests over the Israel-Palestinian conflict reached a crescendo after Columbia cracked down last week on a pro-Palestinian student encampment on its quad.

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Why We Wrote This

As calls for campus order and safety rise alongside voices of anti-Israel protest, colleges and their leaders are facing an extraordinary test. The pressures are coming from both inside and outside.

In recent days, various school administrators have called in police to arrest demonstrators for violating policies against camping on school grounds and posing a threat to public safety. 

The situation has created an extraordinarily difficult balancing act for university leaders, who are trying to thread a needle between encouraging free speech and academic freedom, and cracking down on antisemitism and making sure Jewish students feel safe on campus.  

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“I’ve never seen this much pressure from outside on college campuses and college presidents,” says Brian Rosenberg, a former president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

When Minouche Shafik was appointed as the 20th president of Columbia University last July, she was asked to describe her leadership style. The Egyptian-born, U.S.-educated economist told the school’s alumni magazine that she wouldn’t be seeking the spotlight. 

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“I subscribe to Nelson Mandela’s philosophy that you should lead from behind when you can, and as part of the team as often as possible,” Dr. Shafik said. 

After 10 days of tumult at Columbia, that is no longer an option for a university president who’s being assailed from all sides – students, faculty, and even politicians – for her handling of a spiraling crisis that has now spread to colleges and universities across the country. Months of protests over the Israel-Palestinian conflict reached a crescendo after Columbia cracked down last week on a pro-Palestinian student encampment on its quad, arresting some 100 protesters one day after Dr. Shafik testified before a U.S. House committee investigating antisemitism on campus.

Why We Wrote This

As calls for campus order and safety rise alongside voices of anti-Israel protest, colleges and their leaders are facing an extraordinary test. The pressures are coming from both inside and outside.

HTML tutorial

Since then, the Columbia encampment has only sprung back, while others have sprung up in solidarity on campuses from Emory in Atlanta to the University of Texas at Austin, from Harvard to George Washington University. In recent days, various school administrators have called in police to arrest demonstrators for violating policies against camping on school grounds and posing a threat to public safety. Some have been forced to create virtual options for the final weeks of classes or relocate exam classrooms. 

The situation has created an extraordinarily difficult balancing act for university leaders, who are trying to thread a needle between encouraging free speech and academic freedom, and cracking down on antisemitism and making sure Jewish students feel safe on campus. With just weeks to go before graduation, administrators are also scrambling to restore a general sense of order for their communities, including the many students not involved in the controversy. 

Perhaps no one is in a more perilous position right now than Columbia’s president, as the university senate voted to call for an investigation into campus leadership Friday, while she also was negotiating with protest leaders over a Friday night deadline to dismantle their tents. Many are watching to see whether she can placate Columbia’s circling critics on both the left and right. On Wednesday, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson visited the campus and said the president should go unless she could immediately “bring order to this chaos,” amid jeers from onlookers. 





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