Now that the tents have been cleared from Columbia University’s campus, now that the NYPD has liberated Hamilton Hall, now that arrests have been made and outside agitators named, it’s time to begin making sense of the Tentifada. Mysteries abound: Who paid for all that matching, high-end camping gear? How did the same violent playbook spread from one campus to the next overnight? And what must we do now that the young collegians have made it clear that there’s more mayhem coming?

Let’s hope that our more astute observers get answers to these questions. But we have a more pressing duty: that of observing how various men and women in positions of power and authority acted when the barbarians stormed the gates.

First up: Columbia president Minouche Shafik. If you knew nothing about Shafik, or Columbia, or modern universities, and wanted to ascertain how the president might meet the troubling moment, you wouldn’t have needed to look past one number: $13.64 billion. That’s the value of Columbia’s endowment as of last June; it’s also, more or less, the Gross Domestic Product of Moldova, Rwanda, and a host of other smallish nations. With so much money at stake, it’s likely that anyone in Shafik’s position would have reacted as she did, with a symphony of bluster, obfuscations, and half-truths designed to make sure that business proceeds as usual.

Testifying before Congress in April, for example, Shafik delivered sweeping, emotive statements, such as saying that “for me, personally, any discrimination against people for their Jewish faith is anti-Semitism.” But when asked whether she intended to discipline Professor Joseph Massad, who celebrated the massacre of more than a thousand Israelis on October 7 as “awesome,” Shafik merely said that the errant teacher was “spoken to.” When pressed further about Massad’s employment status, the president replied that she just wasn’t sure.

It was a predictable performance. Even a passing glance at academic life these days makes clear that the men and women rewarded with top jobs on campus aren’t selected for their brilliance, skills, or character. These mutually accrediting mediocrities excel precisely at the corporate art form of being simultaneously in power and not in power, enjoying their authority and prestige but claiming ignorance, impotence, or both when difficulties arise.

If that sounds too harsh, consider that Columbia’s thirteenth president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, stepped into his office in Low Library just after defeating the Nazis and shortly before entering the Oval Office. Columbia’s twentieth president, Shafik, distinguished herself by rising through the ranks of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other institutions keen to reward those who meet the right identity requirements. As president of the London School of Economics, she led that school into recording the highest permanent staff-to-student ratio of any major British university; she relaxed academic criteria and did little to prove herself as either a bold thinker or a competent administrator. It was enough for her to be, as one publication dutifully announced when she took the Columbia job, “the first woman” in office.

And yet, even with such a record of mediocrity, nothing about Shafik’s past conduct could have predicted her statement on May 1. “Over the last few months,” it read, “we have been patient in tolerating unauthorized demonstrations, including the encampment. Our academic leaders spent eight days engaging over long hours in serious dialogue in good faith with protest representatives. I thank them for their tireless effort. The University offered to consider new proposals on divestment and shareholder activism, to review access to our dual degree programs and global centers, to reaffirm our commitment to free speech, and to launch educational and health programs in Gaza and the West Bank.”

The president of Columbia University wasn’t defending academic freedom, free speech, unfettered inquiry, or any of the other principles that are the bedrock of all intellectual and moral pursuits. She was admitting that she was fully ready to scrap collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, consider financial and academic boycotts of the Jewish state, and direct her resources to Hamas-controlled Gaza, just to appease the marauders on her campus.

Shafik’s statement should have shocked her Board of Trustees into an immediate recall. It ought to have sent scores of faculty members out of their offices and into the quad, protesting this violation of everything that academia purportedly stands for. It should have led thousands of outraged parents to demand their money back and announce that they will no longer send their children to such a spineless institution. It should have inspired the Department of Education to heed the calls by several Republican lawmakers and suspend all federal funds to the university. Nothing of the kind happened.

I’ve received several advanced degrees, including my Ph.D., from Columbia University. I taught at Barnard, its sister college, and spent more than a decade reporting on the goings-on in Morningside Heights. Ever since the Tentifada began, I contacted deans and administrators and professors and asked them all what they intended to do now that violence was afoot and cheers for a terrorist group were heard everywhere on their campus. These women and men will not, thanks to their tenure, suffer consequences for speaking the truth—and that is precisely why we have tenure. And yet, to a person, they just mumbled about “working behind the scenes” and “monitoring the situation closely.”

And that, alas, is the real grim news out of Columbia or most any universities these days. You can fire one bumbling president for mishandling a crisis, but the only available successors seem similarly small-minded and weak-willed. By design, the universities are stacked with bureaucratic mediocrities all the way down: if you imagine the modern university as a battleground in an effort to produce a new generation of conformists ready to march in lockstep for whatever cause is deemed to serve “social justice,” you need overseers ready, willing, and able to abandon critical thinking and courage. There could be no more fitting testament to this state of being than Columbia’s decision to cancel its commencement, an admission that it is not really a university anymore.

Let us not, however, abandon all hope. Some elected officials showed solid common sense. As she continues her efforts to leave no ivy-covered stone unturned, New York representative Elise Stefanik shows what serious lawmakers ought to do. So do North Carolina representative Virginia Foxx, House Speaker Mike Johnson, and Democrat Ritchie Torres, who, despite a misguided proposal for a Department of Education task force—a move likely to yield unintended consequences, as the very people it was supposed to keep in check get their hands on political power—stood up for freedom and against anti-Semitism, not a popular move in his party these days.

But if you’re looking for a man of the hour, the distinction probably belongs to New York City’s embattled mayor. In a recent interview on the podcast I co-host, Tablet Magazine’s Unorthodox, Eric Adams responded to a question about what advice he would give to other elected officials on managing the sort of chaos that the NYPD handled so effectively last week on Columbia’s campus. Hizzoner needed only two words: “zero tolerance.” The tents, he responded with blunt candor, shouldn’t have been allowed on the lawn to begin with. Rules should have been observed, and laws respected.

It wasn’t just empty talk. When rioters took over the university’s Hamilton Hall, Adams told the thugs to stand down immediately. “We cannot and will not allow what should be a peaceful gathering to turn into a violent spectacle that serves no purpose,” the mayor said. “We cannot wait until this situation becomes even more serious. This must end now.”

When Shafik finally admitted her own uselessness and turned to the mayor for help, Adams, a former cop, sent in New York’s finest for an operation that ended swiftly and professionally, resulting in dozens of arrests and unearthing helmets, ropes, knives, and terrorism manifestos calling for death to America. The mayor shared this intelligence with the public, again coming off as the responsible adult we badly need right now.

A modest proposal, then, for any parent who wants to raise responsible and morally upright children: forget the poisoned Ivies. Have them join the police instead.

Photo by Indy Scholtens/Getty Images


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