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3 Columbia deans ousted for texts that 'touched on ... antisemitic tropes'

A New York City police officer looks over the center of Columbia University ahead of a large graduation ceremony in May, following weeks of pro-Palestinian protests.
Seth Wenig
A New York City police officer looks over the center of Columbia University ahead of a large graduation ceremony in May, following weeks of pro-Palestinian protests.

Updated July 08, 2024 at 21:57 PM ET

Three deans at Columbia University have lost their jobs over what the university is calling disturbing texts that “touched on ancient antisemitic tropes.” Columbia says the three individuals are on indefinite leave, and will not return to their prior positions.

The three were texting each other during a panel discussion on Jewish life on campus last May, mocking and disparaging students’ complaints of antisemitism. The texts were recently released by a congressional committee investigating antisemitism at Columbia, and were first reported by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website.

Susan Chang-Kim, formerly the vice dean and chief administrative officer was dismissive of the students’ complaints, texting that it “comes from such a place of privilege… hard to hear the woe is me.”

Cristen Kromm, formerly the dean of undergraduate student life, texted vomiting emojis and wrote, “Amazing what $$$$ can do.” Matthew Patashnick, formerly the associate dean for student and family support, suggested Jews on campus were just trying “to take full advantage of this moment. Huge fundraising potential.”

Columbia President Minouche Shafik denounced their comments “unacceptable and deeply upsetting, conveying a lack of seriousness about the concerns of and the experiences of our Jewish community that is antithetical to our University’s values.”

Students called them especially disturbing and hurtful, coming from the very people who are supposed to be responsive to concerns about student life.

“It’s incredibly ironic and acutely painful that someone tasked with ensuring student and family success holds such deeply, deeply antisemitic bias,” said Columbia senior Eden Yadegar. She said she has brought formal complaints to the deans’ office before and never got the response or resolution she hoped for. 

“It feels like we have been knocking on a door that wouldn’t open and now we know why,” Yadegar said. She is among a group of students who recently filed a lawsuit accusing Columbia of discriminatory behavior against Jewish students.  

“These three are totally unfit to hold positions of leadership in higher education,” said junior Elisha Baker, another Jewish student at Columbia. “It is unconscionable that [they] dismissed and disregarded Jewish students' experiences of antisemitism, and, even worse, displayed utter disdain for the Jewish community.”

A fourth dean, Columbia College Dean Josef Sorett, also was involved in the text stream, but he apologized for his role last month and will keep his job. He wrote to students on Monday, saying he is “deeply sorry” this happened in a community where he is “responsible for setting the culture and tone of the staff.” He vowed to do “the work of healing and repair and rebuilding of trust and accountability,” noting that “while not intended as such, some of the text messages exchanged may call to mind antisemitic tropes.”

Baker called Sorett’s phrasing “sad.”

“I’m struggling to understand why it is still so hard for our administrators to unequivocally call out antisemitism,” Baker said. “The administration must commit […] to setting morally clear standards and expectations regarding the treatment of Jews on campus.”

The three deans who were removed did not respond to requests for comment.

Columbia also on Monday announced new and “vigorous” antisemitism and anti-discrimination training for faculty, staff, and students beginning this fall.

David Schizer, a former dean of the law school and a chair of Columbia’s antisemitism task force, called that “a good start.” Columbia has “real problems," said Schizer, who was also on the panel about Jewish life that the three deans were texting about.

“This requires an "all-hands-on-deck" approach,” he said. “We need to change our culture.”

Columbia has been under fire since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, when pro-Palestinian student groups such as Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine denounced the university for supporting Israel while what they viewed as ignoring Palestinian suffering and criticized deans who they said “obfuscated Palestinian resistance as 'terrorism.' ”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.