St Anthony's College

A meaningless, yet successful motion

When I received my undergraduate diploma from Minouche Shafik from the London School of Economics (LSE) two years ago, she had not left much of an impression on me during her years leading the university. Besides moderating key events, featuring in promotional videos and her high salary being a frequent point of discussion, I cannot for better or worse tell you about her impact on the institution.

My impression of Shafik, who is the current president of Columbia University, drastically changed following her repeated decision to call in the NYPD to remove and arrest students protesting against Israel’s actions in Gaza. She no longer seemed like a powerless figurehead who was just a cog in the university’s administrative machinery. From her position, the forceful response may have made sense, considering that two of her fellow Ivy League presidents had been pressured to resign over a failure to address issues concerning anti-Semitism on their campuses.

However, calling in the police arguably proved counterproductive by further inflaming the situation and hardening the protesters’ resolution. New encampments have been set up and the university decided to cancel its main commencement ceremony out of security concerns. More importantly, seeing the police forcefully removing peaceful protesters with some suffering physical harm is, to put it mildly, deeply disturbing. It raises fundamental questions about Columbia’s commitment to free speech.

Although some symbolic actions are meaningful, some are equally meaningless and even counterproductive.

With this in mind, it may seem understandable why St Antony’s GCR recently passed a motion calling on the college to suspend Shafik’s rights as an alumna. The GCR is – like everyone should be – horrified by what is happening in Gaza and wants to take whatever small symbolic actions it can to try and make a difference, such as by showing solidarity with Columbia’s students.

Nobody is (hopefully) naïve enough to think St Antony’s will act. It would be a headache for the college leadership and set up an annoying precedent that would haunt them every time an alumnus did something questionable. In the unlikely scenario that the College agrees to suspend the privileges, it remains doubtful to have any bearing on Shafik’s future actions.

Although some symbolic actions are meaningful, some are equally meaningless and even counterproductive. This case seems to be the latter. The GCR is weakening its negotiating position with the college to demand real action such as putting more pressure on the University to divest from Israeli firms or aiding Palestinian researchers and students. It also seems almost too petty and spiteful. Who actually cares about whether or not Shafik maintains her privileges – it could not matter any less!

But maybe that is exactly why the motion is unintentionally successful. A useful PR trick to generate a few headlines, spark conversation and bring just a little more attention to what is happening in Columbia and Gaza. After all, I was planning on writing about something else this week.

Image Description: Chapel of St Antony’s College.

Image Credit: Jonathan Bowen via Wikipedia Commons