Columbia University removes deans who mocked antisemitism concerns in wake of Gaza protests

NEW YORK — Three Columbia University deans who “engaged in very troubling text message exchanges” in the aftermath of relentless pro-Palestinian campus protests have been permanently removed from their positions, President Minouche Shafik and officials announced Monday.

The administrators had been placed on leave pending an investigation since their texts at a reunion panel on Jewish campus life on May 31 were exposed.

“This incident revealed behavior and sentiments that were not only unprofessional but also, disturbingly, touched on ancient antisemitic tropes,” Shafik wrote in an email to students and faculty.

“Whether intended as such or not, 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 spokesmen declined to say if the leave is paid or if the administrators will remain employed by the university in other roles. A fourth dean who was in one of the group chats will remain in his position.

The text exchange — first excerpted in the conservative news outlet The Washington Free Beacon a month ago and released in full by the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee last week — showed Cristen Kromm, the dean of undergraduate student life, fired off two sick and vomit emojis referencing a campus rabbi’s op-ed about antisemitism. “Amazing what $$$$ can do,” the dean remarked.

Another administrator, Matthew Patashnick, the associate dean for student and family support, charged that Hillel executive director Brian Cohen, one of the panelists, “knows exactly what he’s doing and how to take full advantage of this moment. Huge fundraising potential.” The message was liked by Kromm.

A third official, Susan Chang-Kim, the vice dean and chief administrative officer of Columbia College, said panelists expressing their fears about campus antisemitism came from “such a place of privilege.”

“Hard to hear the woe is me, we need to huddle at the Kraft center,” said Chang-Kim, referring to the Jewish life campus building, which hosts weekly Shabbat dinners and services, and religious events for the High Holidays. “Huh??”

Last spring, Columbia was roiled by campus protests against Israel’s war in Gaza, including an encampment in the heart of campus calling for divestment. Shafik summoned the NYPD to clear the demonstration. Shortly after, students set up new tents until a smaller group of protesters occupied a campus building and spurred Shafik to again call the police, who arrested more than 100 demonstrators.

Last month, the cases of 31 of the 46 people who were charged with trespassing in Hamilton Hall were dismissed by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Other protesters were offered a deal that would see their charges dismissed if they were not arrested again but declined. The group is due back in court July 25.

Columbia College Dean Josef Sorett, who was in one of text exchanges and chimed in with a “Lmao,” slang for laughing, will remain in his position, university officials said. He penned a memo to students on Monday apologizing for the incident.

“As the leader of Columbia College, I am responsible for setting the culture and tone of the staff of the college,” he said. “The entire incident was contrary to the values of the university. While not intended as such, some of the text messages exchanged may call to mind antisemitic tropes. Any language that demeans members of our community, or divides us from one another, is simply unacceptable.”

“I am deeply sorry that this happened in a community that I lead and, that I was part of any of the exchanges, and I pledge to spearhead the change we need to ensure this never happens again,” added Sorett, whose academic research focused on religion and race.

An alumni-led petition launched last week after the release of the full transcript had called for all four deans’ ousters and reached 1,400 signatures Monday. The group called Sorett’s continuing as dean “untenable.”

In the near term, current Columbia College staff will take charge of its operations. Shafik said Columbia will launch a “vigorous” program of training against antisemitism and broader anti-discrimination training for faculty and staff this fall, plus related sessions for students led by the Office of University Life. More details will be shared this summer, officials said.

“While this disturbing incident has presented us challenges as a community, Columbia’s leadership team recognizes this as an important moment to implement changes that will build a stronger institution as a result,” the university president said.