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    Friday, July 19, 2024

    Columbia University puts deans on leave after texts evoking ‘antisemitic tropes’

    Columbia University has permanently removed three administrators from their roles and placed them on indefinite leave for texts sent during an alumni weekend event about Jewish life on campus.

    Minouche Shafik, the president of Columbia, wrote to the campus community Monday that the behavior and sentiments exhibited in the messages were troubling, unprofessional and “touched on ancient antisemitic tropes.”

    “Whether intended as such or not,” she wrote, “these sentiments are unacceptable and deeply upsetting, conveying a lack of seriousness about the concerns and the experiences of members of our Jewish community that is antithetical to our University’s values and the standards we must uphold in our community.”

    Columbia has faced scrutiny from lawmakers, the Education Department, alumni and others about campus antisemitism this year, as the campus was roiled by protests over the Israel-Gaza war that touched off similar demonstrations at colleges across the country this spring and shut down normal operations on the Ivy League campus. In April, a rabbi at Columbia told Jewish students they should return home for their own safety.

    Last month, the Free Beacon published photos of texts exchanged during a panel discussion on Jewish life between university administrators Josef Sorett, the dean of Columbia College; Susan Chang-Kim, then a vice dean of Columbia College; Cristen Kromm, then dean of undergraduate student life; and Matthew Patashnick, then associate dean for student and family support, with messages dismissive of the speakers’ remarks about campus antisemitism. In one instance, one of the deans sent a vomit emoji in reference to a campus rabbi’s op-ed about antisemitism, according to the Free Beacon.

    Sorett remains dean of Columbia College, but the three others were removed from their roles. The three former deans did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

    The House Committee on Education and the Workforce demanded copies of the texts, and publicly released them last week, saying they showed senior Columbia College administrators “mocking and disparaging” the university’s Jewish community, “and trafficking in antisemitic tropes regarding Jews and money.”

    According to the committee, in one text during the panel discussion titled “Jewish Life on Campus: Past, Present, and Future,” one of the administrators wrote about a panelist, Brian Cohen, the Lavine Family Executive Director of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, “He knows exactly what he’s doing and how to take full advantage of this moment. Huge fundraising potential.”

    “I’m going to throw up,” another wrote in another exchange.

    Three speakers in the panel discussion did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

    Sorett sent three texts, apparently in response to messages from Chang-Kim, transcripts of texts released by the committee indicate. The other three administrators sent many messages in a group chat with one another.

    Elisha Baker, a junior at Columbia College, said he participated in school-sponsored listening sessions over the past school year hoping to raise awareness among university leaders about campus antisemitism. “What we found out when these texts were leaked and then later released by Congress, was that they never really cared. We never had an ally. And the listening sessions clearly did nothing, because not only did they not understand, they perpetuated the exact same antisemitic tropes and the exact same dismissiveness about Jewish students on campus that we’ve been articulating to them for nine months.”

    "It’s such a punch in the gut, from the people that are supposed to have our backs,” Baker said.

    He noted the university didn’t announce the deans had been fired, but that they had been removed from their roles and placed on leave. “I don’t know what that means,” he said. “But I do not believe that any of those three deans are fit for a leadership role in a university. Period.”

    On Monday, Shafik wrote that the university would launch “vigorous” antisemitism and anti-discrimination training for faculty and staff in the fall, with related training for students.

    Angela V. Olinto, the university’s provost, wrote to the campus community Monday as well, sharing Shafik’s dismay at conduct that she said was contrary to the values of the institution. She said she would work with Sorett to “mend relationships, repair trust, and rebuild accountability.”

    In a letter to Columbia College students Monday, Sorett wrote that he is responsible for setting the culture and tone of the staff at the college, and that “Any language that demeans members of our community, or divides us from one another, is simply unacceptable. I am deeply sorry that this happened …” He said he would spearhead changes to ensure it never happens again, and that he had apologized to the members of the panel discussion.

    “The loss of trust and the pain this incident has caused, particularly to the Jewish members of our community,” he wrote, “must be fully repaired.”

    Aaron Schaffer contributed to this report.

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