Dear President Shafik:

“In Lumine Tuo Videbimus Lumen”—In Thy light shall we see light. As an arriving Columbia College freshman in 1972, I read these words on the Seal of the University not really understanding what they meant. During the ensuing four years, however, I came to appreciate their meaning—that the pursuit of knowledge illuminates our path to truth and understanding and that Columbia would shine that light. Some fifty years later, I am heartbroken to see that the lights have gone out at my alma mater.

Immediately following the horrifying terrorist attacks of October 7, 2023, and before Israel had even responded, Columbia erupted in pro-Hamas demonstrations that stunned the campus Jewish community. The worst attack upon Jews since the Holocaust was literally being celebrated by significant numbers of students and faculty. Your response was to take the easy way out, i.e., to denounce the terrorist attacks while affirming the demonstrators’ free speech rights and paying lip service to your concern for the safety of all students on campus. What you failed to understand last October was that university presidents have free speech rights as well. You could and should have unequivocally condemned both the terrorist attacks and those who were celebrating it on campus. Not doing so was a failure of leadership.

Two fundamental lessons of history and parenting are that the absence of leadership is always perceived as weakness and the refusal to correct bad behavior inevitably results in more. You apparently have never learned either lesson.

Thanks in no small part to your weak response in October, the climate of antisemitism at Columbia has only worsened on your watch during the intervening six months. Over the past several days, including at the very moment when you were testifying on this issue before a House committee, the campus has turned into something resembling a full-throated antisemitic pogrom or a Nuremberg rally. Hundreds of individuals, many masked to conceal their identities, have been permitted to verbally and physically assault Jewish students based solely on their religion. Calls for further violence and terrorism against Jews in general and Israel in particular are screamed across campus, including throughout an impermissible encampment on South Lawn, and just outside the gates on Broadway. The situation has become so dire that just yesterday a rabbi at Columbia advised Jewish students to flee the campus and complete their studies online due to “extreme antisemitism.”

I am a First Amendment attorney in California. I devote a significant portion of my law practice to protecting the free speech rights of university students and faculty. Your insistence upon couching what is happening as a “complicated” tension between the free speech rights of pro-Palestinian protesters and the feelings of Jewish students is both incorrect and merely an excuse for inaction. Indeed, much of what we are seeing at Columbia constitutes incitement and true threats and is not protected speech. The conduct is severe and pervasive and so objectively offensive that it has denied its targets—Jewish students and their supporters—access to their educational opportunities at Columbia. Therefore, it constitutes unlawful harassment under both the university’s code of student conduct and the applicable law. The university’s attorneys have surely said as much to you; yet the crisis steadily worsens with no meaningful action on your part.

The university has the right to take steps to expel any student and to fire any employee engaging in harassment or violent conduct directed at members of the Columbia community based on their protected class, in this case toward Jewish students. Furthermore, the university has the duty to protect its students from outsiders who come to campus to prey upon them. 

There isn’t the slightest doubt that if this revolting and intimidating conduct were being directed at any other group of students based on their religion, race, or gender, Columbia would have put a stop to it on day one. It is only because the victims are Jews that Columbia has abandoned its moral compass. Shame on you for that, and shame on your entire administration. I am calling upon you to resign your office. You have had over six months to steer the university on the right course; instead, you are taking it and the brand over a cliff.

Finally, I am not some billionaire donor who can make headlines by turning off the donation spigot. I am simply one of thousands of alums disgusted with what the campus has become in recent months. Perhaps more importantly, this climate of antisemitism clearly could not have begun overnight in October but was years in the making yet was unnoticed or deliberately ignored by Columbia. Therefore, I am returning my diploma to you. After nearly fifty years, it is no longer a source of pride for me. I realize it is probably a meaningless gesture to you; but it is of tremendous symbolic importance to me.

Sincerely,
Arthur I. Willner (’76)