The many crimes of Columbia University President Minouche Shafik

2 May 2024
Riley K
Columbia University President Minouche Shafik PHOTO: Gabriella Gregor Splaver/Columbia Spectator

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik made international headlines on 18 April when she called in the NYPD to disperse the university’s Gaza solidarity encampment. It was the first time the university had forcibly ended a student protest since a 1968 occupation opposing the Vietnam War. One hundred students were arrested. In the following days New York University followed Shafik’s lead. More than 130 students and university staff were zip tied and thrown into a city bus commandeered for the mass arrest.

This initial repression turned the isolated spark of Columbia’s encampment into a wildfire. Across US (and, in recent days, in Australia and around the world) thousands of students incensed by Israel’s genocide in Gaza and the complicity of their universities built their own encampments, and have in many cases faced intense police repression themselves.

Those who hadn’t heard of Minouche Shafik before Columbia students pitched their tents may be curious about the history of a university president who so quickly unleashed the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group on her own students. To put it simply: Shafik is a warrior for the ruling class. Her assault on the democratic rights of students is only the latest in a litany of crimes committed against ordinary people the world over.

Born in 1962 to a wealthy landowning family in Alexandria, Egypt, Shafik moved to the US at the age of four when Nasser’s government nationalised her parents’ property. After studying economics at some of Britain’s most elite universities, she began a stint at the World Bank, where she held a variety of positions before becoming the youngest vice president in the institution's history.

Starting in 2011, Shafik oversaw the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) operations in Europe and the Middle East. Her work at the IMF included ensuring that the neoliberal policies and festering inequality that ignited the Arab Spring remained in place once the revolutions were crushed. She also administered the IMF’s work in Greece during its intense debt crisis. In just the first year of Shafik’s term, austerity measures implemented to repay IMF loans saw unemployment hit a record high of 23.1 percent and 20,000 Greeks made homeless. By the end of her term, 36 percent of people in Greece lived below the poverty line.

Shafik continued her work as a foot soldier for the global ruling class when she began her career as a university boss. After becoming director of the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2017, she unleashed a vicious campaign of academic casualisation. Fixed term contracts at the LSE increased, inflation ate into staff wages, and the student-to-permanent staff ratio became the worst in the United Kingdom.

When LSE staff decided to take legal strike action, management, directed by Shafik, punished them by imposing 50 percent pay deductions, with some receiving deductions of up to 75 percent. In laughable contrast to her treatment of Columbia University students protesting genocide, Shafik allowed the admission to the LSE of a white supremacist who publicly participated in the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017. When questioned by students, she simply shrugged and stated the LSE was a “place of learning”.

Shafik’s battle with the students of Columbia is certainly her most public yet. From the beginning of the Gaza solidarity encampment, dozens of Columbia students have been suspended, evicted from university housing, and threatened with expulsion. And since she made the call to send in the NYPD while holed up in a veritable war room at a Washington DC law firm on 18 April (where she had gone to appear before a congressional committee “investigating” the supposed scourge of anti-semitism on US university campuses) the situation has only intensified.

Days later, hundreds of Columbia staff walked out in protest against the mass arrests of students. Shafik responded by announcing that all in-person instruction would be cancelled and the university would shift to remote learning for the remainder of the academic year—a move designed to isolate the students and sympathetic staff members and clear the ground for more repression.

At every turn, Columbia students have bravely defied Shafik’s attacks and threats. Multiple rounds of negotiation between university administrators and protestors have floundered—little surprise given the choice the university offered students has been between imminent arrest or surrender without any significant change being won. Shafik is determined to not back down. In a statement published on 29 April, she didn’t mince words. “The university”, she said, “will not divest from Israel”.

On 30 April, she sent in the cops again, this time on students occupying Hamilton Hall, which the students renamed “Hind’s Hall” after murdered Palestinian child Hind Rajab. In a letter calling on the NYPD for assistance, Shafik claimed “the events on campus ... have left us no choice”. Seemingly endless streams of cops stormed the occupied building carrying weapons with live ammunition. Once again, more than 100 student protestors were arrested and the student encampment was smashed-up.

Where the protests will continue from here is uncertain. However, the many crimes of Minouche Shafik make the answer to the question “which side are you on?” a very easy one.

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