No confidence vote in Columbia University President Minouche Shafik underway in wake of Gaza protests

NEW YORK — Arts and sciences faculty at Columbia University have launched a vote of no confidence in embattled college president Minouche Shafik, after her congressional testimony and response to campus protests angered large swaths of the Columbia community.

Voting is open for a week to around 1,000 faculty from the main part of the university on a highly critical resolution of Shafik, who was inaugurated last fall, accusing her administration of making unilateral decisions that put students and faculty in harm’s way.

“The President’s choices to ignore our statutes and our norms of academic freedom and shared governance, to have our students arrested, and to impose a lockdown of our campus with continuing police presence, have irrevocably undermined our confidence in her,” read the text, sent to faculty on Thursday evening.

“A vote of no confidence in the President is the first step towards rebuilding our community and re-establishing the University’s core values,” it continued.

The vote does not include faculty from other programs, such as the law or journalism schools, and was initially called for by the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a professional faculty organization, last week. Columbia employs more than 4,600 full-time faculty, university data show.

“President Shafik continues to regularly consult with members of the community, including faculty, administration, and trustees, as well as with state, city and community leaders,” a Columbia spokeswoman said. “She appreciates the efforts of those working alongside her on the long road ahead to heal our community.”

In the resolution, faculty raised concerns about Shafik’s congressional testimony on April 17, when she said she planned to fire one professor and announced another two faculty members were under investigation over comments about Israel. Those actions, they said, are “clear violations” of academic freedom and paved the way for external forces to set university policies.

The text also criticizes her decision-making on student disciplinary action and police reinforcement to restore order on campus, without consultation with Columbia governance structures and over the objections of faculty and students on the executive committee of the University Senate. It also says she overstated the dangers posed by the students.

The vote comes after the Columbia administration on April 30 called in the NYPD to end the takeover of a campus building, Hamilton Hall, and dismantle the Gaza solidarity encampment, leading to more than 100 arrests in and around campus.

It was the second time in recent weeks Shafik turned to police and mass arrests on April 18 to shut down the tent demonstration, which was first erected hours ahead of her appearance before Congress and sparked a national movement of college protests against Israel’s war in Gaza.

“We tried very hard to resolve the issue of the encampment through dialogue,” Shafik said last week in her first verbal address since the arrests. “Many people who gathered there were largely peaceful and cared deeply about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Academic leaders talked with students for eight days and nights. The University made a sincere and good offer, but it was not accepted.”

But the occupation of Hamilton Hall, the university president continued, “crossed a new line” and put students at risk.

Michael Thaddeus, a Columbia math professor, said the vote is believed to be the first time any school at Columbia has considered a motion of no confidence in leadership.

Shafik’s “heavy-handed security measures alienated students and made them feel less safe, not more,” Thaddeus said. “She vacillated on the encampment, first calling the police to dismantle it, then promising not to call them again, then reneging on her promise and authorizing a brutal crackdown.”

The vote is symbolic and not binding, but Thaddeus suggested current leadership should heed its call for a change in management style.

“If the motion passes, then in my opinion, President Shafik should resign,” he said.

After this semester, questions remain about how Columbia can rebuild relationships between students and the administration and restore a sense of safety on campus.

In a survey of more than 700 students and professors at Columbia, nearly all, 96%, disagreed with how Shafik’s administration has handled the demonstrations, campus newspaper Columbia Spectator and New York Magazine found. Half said Shafik should resign for various reasons, from accusing the administration of stifling free speech to doing too little to combat antisemitism.

Shafik in an op-ed for the Financial Times on Thursday called for“serious soul searching” within higher education to reunify campuses after a semester of tense protests and frayed ties among students and with university presidents.

“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.”

Voting on the no confidence resolution will close by end of day on Wednesday, an email to faculty said.