Columbia Faculty Group Passes No-Confidence Resolution Against President

Hundreds of professors at the university weighed in on the resolution, which said the president, Nemat Shafik, had committed an “unprecedented assault on student’s rights.”

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University passed a resolution of no confidence in the school’s president, Nemat Shafik, on Thursday, saying she had violated the “fundamental requirements of academic freedom and shared governance,” and engaged in an “unprecedented assault on student’s rights.”

The move, while largely symbolic, underscores the anger that Dr. Shafik faces on campus as she tries to recover from her divisive handling of pro-Palestinian demonstrations and her public pledge to a congressional committee last month that she would discipline several faculty members who had espoused views against Israel that some have argued are antisemitic.

The no-confidence resolution was introduced by the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a professional faculty organization. Of the 709 professors who voted, 65 percent were in favor of the resolution and 29 percent were against it. Six percent abstained.

The resolution particularly criticized Dr. Shafik’s decision to call the police into campus to clear a pro-Palestinian student encampment on April 18, even after the executive committee of the University Senate had unanimously told her not to do it. The resolution said that she had “falsely claimed” that the students were a “clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the university,” arguing instead that they were peaceful.

She also violated the norms of academic freedom when she promised to fire faculty members in testimony before a congressional committee on antisemitism on April 17, the resolution said.

“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 gravely undermined our confidence in her,” the resolution stated.

Dr. Shafik has not made any public appearances before students since calling in the police to rout protesters from Hamilton Hall, a campus building, on April 30, outside of a video the school posted online this month in which she addressed the broader university community. Citing security concerns, she has kept the main campus in a state of partial lockdown for more than two weeks, and canceled the main graduation ceremony over which she would have presided.

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

The many smaller graduation ceremonies for each of Columbia’s 19 colleges have gone relatively smoothly, but they were not without signs of protests. Some students wore black-and-white kaffiyehs; others unfurled small Palestinian flags. The valedictorian of Columbia College, the university’s main undergraduate school, held up a sign that said “Divest” as she walked around the stage.

Outside of the ceremonies, a few people handed out fliers to friends and family members waiting in line with the protesters’ demands, including that the school divest from companies that work with Israel. A billboard truck also occasionally circled displaying a photo of Dr. Shafik on a bright red background with the text “TIME TO RESIGN!”

Saham David Ahmed Ali, the student speaker at the university’s Mailman School of Public Health, used her graduation speech to call for a cease-fire in Gaza and lay out the demands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators, receiving broad cheers. Her microphone cut out briefly during her speech: A college spokesperson called it an unintentional technical glitch.

Those relatively modest protests were in contrast to those at other schools around the city, including the New School and parts of the City University of New York, a public system, where larger demonstrations have taken place in recent days. Students at CUNY and at New York University also briefly occupied buildings, but stood down without the police intervening.

A different group of students and faculty members at Columbia circulated an open letter calling on Dr. Shafik to better enforce security on campus, and saying they supported her efforts to crack down on protesters. That letter, which by Thursday was signed by hundreds of people, including alumni, parents and others with no ties to the university, mentioned multiple incidents it cited as antisemitic.

The group that brought the no-confidence resolution against Dr. Shafik does not “represent many faculty and students at Columbia University,” the letter stated.

As she attempts to weather the tensions, Dr. Shafik has been holding private meetings with faculty and other Columbia community members in an attempt to repair ties and find a way forward without resigning. (Three other Ivy League presidents have resigned in the last six months, although it is not clear that all of their departures were related to tensions over the war in Gaza and the related protests.)

On Wednesday, Dr. Shafik wrote a conciliatory note to students and published it in the school newspaper in lieu of a graduation speech.

“You may not agree with every decision taken by university leadership, but please know that it came from a place of care and concern for the common good at Columbia,” she wrote. She added that she would “look back on the class of 2024 with admiration and special fondness.”

The resolution, held among the largest group of faculty members at the college, passed with 458 votes in favor, 206 votes against and 45 abstentions. Of the 899 faculty members eligible to vote, 709 completed a ballot. It appeared to be the first time that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Columbia had ever passed a vote of no confidence in a president, several faculty members said.

On April 26, the University Senate, which consists of 111 delegates from across Columbia, passed a resolution calling for an investigation into Dr. Shafik’s actions, but stopping short of a censure. That resolution accused the administration of violating established protocols, undermining academic freedom, jeopardizing free inquiry and breaching the due process rights of both students and professors.

Though it was critical, Thursday’s no-confidence resolution was not a call for Dr. Shafik to resign, said Robert Newton, an oceanographer at Columbia and a member of the executive committee of the American Association of University Professors. Instead, it charted a path forward.

“A vote of no confidence in the president is the first step toward rebuilding our community and re-establishing the university’s core values of free speech, the right to peaceful assembly and shared governance,” the resolution stated.

There are about 4,700 full-time faculty members at Columbia, of which the Faculty of Arts and Science represents about 20 percent. Many of the student protesters who were disciplined and arrested study with arts and science faculty members, “so it makes sense that they would come down the most firmly about this issue,” Dr. Newton said.

Liset Cruz contributed reporting.