Mixed Message

Columbia deans placed on indefinite leave for antisemitic texts

After the three administrators were removed from their jobs for text messages, Jewish students still believe university avoiding responsibility given ‘ambiguous’ wording of announcement

Alex Wong/Getty Images

President of Columbia University Minouche Shafik (L), and David Schizer (R), Dean Emeritus and Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law & Economics, testify before the House Committee on Education & the Workforce at Rayburn House Office Building on April 17, 2024 in Washington, DC.

Jewish student leaders at Columbia University were flummoxed on Monday following a “confusing” and “intentionally ambiguous” announcement by President Minouche Shafik that three administrators had been removed from their posts for text messages that veered into antisemitism during a May panel on Jewish life at the university.

The statement from Shafik and Provost Angela Olinto referenced the “permanent removal” of the three — Susan Chang-Kim, vice dean and chief administrative officer; Cristen Kromm, dean of undergraduate student life; and Matthew Patashnick, associate dean for student and family support — but added that they “remain on leave.”

Eliana Goldin, a rising fourth-year political science major pursuing a dual degree at the Jewish Theological Seminary, told Jewish Insider that the wording “was intentionally left ambiguous so that students would think some sort of concrete action was being taken by the university.”

“This mirrors the lack of equivocal condemnation of the antisemitic condemnation of the antisemitic administrators,” Goldin, co-chair of Aryeh, a pro-Israel club associated with Hillel on campus, continued. “In reality, the university is trying to skirt responsibility and using bureaucratic measures to avoid taking real responsibility.”

A Columbia University spokesperson told CNN that the three officials are still employed by the university.

The controversial texts occurred during a May 31 panel titled “Jewish Life on Campus: Past, Present and Future,” and in the exchange the administrators seemed to belittle the concerns of Jewish students amid a sharp rise in antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment on campus. 

The text messages, which have since been published by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which has opened an investigation into the incident and demanded a full transcript of the texts, included a message from Chang-Kim at 1:46 p.m. reading, “Comes from such a place of privilege… hard to hear the woe is me, we need to huddle at the Kraft center. Huh??” At 2:06 p.m., Kromm wrote, “Amazing what $$$$ can do” during a speech about an October 2023 Columbia Spectator op-ed by a campus rabbi.

A fourth administrator, Dean of Columbia College Josef Sorett, also participated in the exchange but to a lesser extent. Shafik said that disciplinary action would not be taken against Sorett, as “he has apologized and taken full responsibility, committing to the work and collaboration necessary to heal the community and learn from this moment, and make sure nothing like this ever happens again.” The other three administrators were placed on leave on June 20 and were under university investigation for their participation in the exchange. 

A spokesperson for Columbia University declined to elaborate to JI on the wording of Shafik’s statement. 

“This incident revealed behavior and sentiments that were not only unprofessional, but also, disturbingly touched on ancient antisemitic tropes,” Shafik wrote on Monday. “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.”

Shafik also wrote that the university “will launch a vigorous program of antisemitism and anti discrimination training for faculty and staff this fall, with related training for students under the auspices of University Life.” The university will release more information about the training throughout the summer, Olinto wrote. 

“I am encouraged that President Shafik removed the deans, but I am confused by the wording,” Noah Lederman, a rising sophomore studying philosophy and pre-law who was part of the delegation of Jewish students who attended a Congressional hearing on antisemitism at Columbia in the spring, told JI. 

In February, Lederman was heading back to his dorm from a pro-Israel demonstration, wearing a shirt with an Israeli flag, when he was “physically assaulted by a masked individual right outside of the Northwest Corner Building on Broadway and 120th Street,” he told JI at the time. 

Lederman, who is the student president of Columbia’s Meor chapter, which runs campus social events tied to study of traditional Jewish texts, added of Monday’s announcement, “This reads to me as every other email has; very performative. It sounds like this was phrased in a way to make people believe the administrators were being fired… the ambiguity is unprofessional. Be forthright about what’s going on.” 

A spokesperson for Virginia Foxx, (R-NC) who oversaw the House Committee on Education and the Workforce investigation into the texts, told the Columbia Spectator on Monday that the removals are “not enough” and that Columbia is “far from off the hook.” 

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