Columbia’s journey from scholarship to activism

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The images of the recent protests at Columbia University have grabbed the attention of the American public: students chanting for a Palestinian state, “from the river to the sea”; activists setting up a mass tent encampment on the campus lawn; masked occupiers seizing control of Hamilton Hall. 

For some, it was a sign that ancient antisemitism had established itself in the heart of the Ivy League. For others, it was déjà vu of 1968, when mass demonstrations last roiled campus.

Columbia president Minouche Shafik feigned surprise. In a statement to students, she expressed “deep sadness” about the campus chaos. 

But to anyone who has observed Columbia in recent decades, the upheaval should not come as a surprise. 

Seeds of discontent

Behind the images of campus protests lies a deeper, more troubling story: the ideological capture of the university, which inexorably drove Columbia toward this moment. 

Columbia for decades has cultivated the precise conditions that allowed the pro-Hamas protests to flourish. The university built massive departments to advance “postcolonialism,” spent hundreds of millions of dollars on “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and glorified New Left–style student activism as the telos of university life.

Terms like these might sound benign, but the reality is sinister. 

As the protests revealed, postcolonial theory is often an academic cover for antisemitism, DEI is frequently a method for enflaming racial grievances and student activism can become a rationalization for violence and destruction.

The university, founded by royal charter in 1754 and a great American institution for more than two centuries, has lost its way. There will need to be a reckoning before it can return to its former glory.

The first part of that process is understanding what went wrong. To do so, we will attempt to uncover the roots of Columbia’s intifada.

The first element driving the current unrest is ideology.

Columbia has long been a pioneer in the theoretical approaches — postcolonialism, decolonization and Islamism — that have shaped progressive opinion of Third World and Middle Eastern affairs. 

These systems of thought apply the basic principle of critical theory — that politics is a conflict between oppressed and oppressor groups — to the colonized populations of geopolitical history. 

In practice, white Europeans and Jewish Zionists play the oppressor role, while Third World nations, including the Palestinians, play the oppressed. In these ideologies, violence can be not only justified but essential to the process of “liberation.”

At Columbia, this mindset has become gospel. The university’s academic departments employ some of the world’s most prominent postcolonial scholars. 

The university press has published dozens of books on the subject, and the course directory lists at least 46 classes offered since the fall with descriptions including the words “postcolonial” or “postcolonialism.”

Radical faculty

Faculty and student adherents of the mindset have long focused on the Middle East. Columbia was the academic home of Edward Said, a founding postcolonial scholar who was among the first to translate Marxism and postmodern principles to the study of the relationships between Western and Islamic societies. 

Since Said’s death in 2003, the university has built massive programs to continue his work. These have employed increasingly radical figures.

In 2003, for example, the university hired the controversial historian Rashid Khalidi to lead the university’s Middle East Institute. Khalidi once allegedly served as an unofficial spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he denies, and has denounced Israel as an “apartheid system in creation” and a “racist” state. 

The historian has long supported the campaign to “boycott, divest, and sanction” Israel and, in 2016, was one of 40 Columbia faculty who signed a BDS petition. Early in his Columbia tenure, Khalidi was dismissed from a New York City teacher-training program for allegedly endorsing violence against Israeli soldiers, a charge he also denied.

But Khalidi is only the tip of the spear. 

In 2010, Columbia launched its Center for Palestine Studies, which it describes as “the first such center in an academic institution in the United States.” The center currently has 26 affiliated faculty members and hosts a score of visiting professors. 

Their orientation is distinctly anti-Israel. One affiliated professor has claimed that Israeli archaeologists faked or manipulated information to legitimize the State of Israel. Another teaches a class called “Settlers and Natives,” which examines “the question of decolonization” and compares the International Criminal Court’s relationship to the “Israel/Palestine” conflict to that of the Nuremberg Court and the Holocaust.

Columbia further expanded its postcolonial program in 2018. That year, the school opened the Center for the Study of Muslim Societies, which serves as a central organizing point for ideologically aligned professors and activists. The center boasts affiliations with 80 “scholars,” including more than a dozen who focus explicitly on postcolonialism, making it one of the largest such programs in the United States.


This sudden expansion of postcolonial programs was funded, in part, by wealthy individuals and a government from the Middle East — a fact Columbia sometimes has tried to hide. 

For example, the university kept its donor list secret as it sought to raise an estimated $4 million to endow a chair for Rashid Khalidi. After an uproar, however, administrators succumbed and quietly released a list of 18 donors, which included the United Arab Emirates, a Palestinian oil magnate who supported anti-Israel policies, and other activists. 

During that same period, the university also failed to report $250,000 it received from an unidentified Saudi Arabian donor, violating federal and state law.

While the extent of Arab-state funding is unknown, this much is certain: Columbia’s postcolonial studies programs have steadily pushed BDS, Islamist and anti-Israel narratives on campus, with predictable results. 

Today’s campus protests parrot the language of such ideologies. For many Columbia students, it is enough that some Israelis look white to condemn them as colonial “oppressors” and to call for the destruction of the Jewish state. 

Following the work of Columbia professor Mahmood Mamdani, they have internalized the argument that Israelis are conducting a campaign akin to the American genocide of the Native Americans, or even that of the Nazis against the Jews. Judging from the rhetoric at the pro-Hamas protests, it appears that at least some of the students were paying attention in class.

The second factor driving Columbia’s intifada is diversity, equity and inclusion.

Columbia has built one of the most substantial DEI bureaucracies in the Ivy League. 

‘Racist’ obsession

Former president Lee Bollinger — the respondent in Grutter v. Bollinger, the landmark 2003 Supreme Court case that established the constitutionality of race-based college admissions — was an ardent supporter of DEI and racial preferences. Bollinger, who retired last year, built DEI into the structure of the university. 

He boasted in 2021, “Since 2005, Columbia has proudly invested $185 million to diversify our faculty.”

Following the 2020 George Floyd riots, Bollinger leveraged the political unrest to strengthen left-wing ideologies’ grip on campus, under the guise of a “[c]ommitment to [a]ntiracism.” 

Today, each school and center at Columbia has a formal DEI team. Almost all have a chief diversity officer, provide DEI training, “identity-based support,” DEI-based recruitment or retention, external partnerships and “DEI focused fundraising.”

Beginning under Bollinger’s leadership, the university opened the floodgates for ideological and racially discriminatory programs. Columbia has made several such big-money efforts in recent years: an initiative to hire faculty who study racism; funding to bolster the number of “underrepresented faculty candidates” hired in STEM fields and across all disciplines; a program to “ensure equity and enhance diversity in our graduate programs’ applicant pools”; and grants “for faculty projects that engage with issues of structural racism.”

To Bollinger, many of these programs were apparently justified by the belief that Columbia was a racist institution. In 2014, for example, the university under the former president’s leadership published a preliminary report declaring that “slavery was intertwined with the life of the college.”

As the document goes on, however, it becomes clear that slavery was no more “intertwined” with Columbia than it was with any other northern institution. Even The New York Times’ coverage of the report noted that the university itself never appeared to have owned slaves and that most Columbians sided with the Union in the Civil War. 

But the purpose of the report was not historical accuracy; it was to stoke anger and guilt.

This is characteristic of Columbia’s DEI efforts. Rather than cultivate scholarship, the university and its diversity bureaucracy have fostered a perpetual sense of grievance. Supposedly marginalized students don’t see themselves as individuals in pursuit of knowledge but as a coalition of the oppressed in pursuit of social justice. DEI is not oriented toward truth; it is oriented toward power.

Repeating history

The final element: student activism.

To the outside observer, Columbia’s campus protests might appear spontaneous, driven by students’ own initiative. 

But the university has promoted a mythology of left-wing activism and encouraged students to engage in “ongoing antiracism work and activism at Columbia.”

The myth was established in 1968. That year, New Left activists held demonstrations, occupied the Hamilton Hall building and engaged in a dramatic confrontation with police. 

For some observers, such as Allan Bloom, who wrote 1987’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” this was the moment that American universities lost their moral authority and capitulated to the activist mob. 

But for Columbia’s current administrators, the campus protests were a symbol of rebellious triumph.

The 1968 students were the heroes, in this view; the real enemies were the police and the defenders of order. 

As Bollinger said on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 protests, the decision to call in the police to break up protests was “a serious breach of the ethos of the university,” adding that “you simply do not bring police onto a campus.”

The glorification of student activism is not only embedded in administrative culture; it’s also part of the curriculum. 

Consider Fawziah Qadir, a Columbia-affiliated education professor and critical race theorist, who promises on her personal website to “transform education into a tool for liberation.” Qadir teaches a course called “Making Change: Activism, Social Movement” at the university. According to the description, the course teaches “the ways people power has pushed for change in the United States educational landscape” and calls on students to “propose actions” for activist campaigns in the future.

Under these conditions, it’s hard to blame Columbia students for taking the protests to excess. They were recruited, taught, and trained to do precisely what they’ve done.

All wrong

The real scandal is that the university has long since relinquished its role as the responsible authority. There should be no sympathy for president Shafik and other administrators, who have perpetuated a colossal double standard: teaching students how to conduct a radical left-wing protest, and then arresting them as soon as they did exactly what their university had encouraged them to do.

In any conflict, people naturally want to pick a side. Sometimes, however, no one is worthy of support.

Columbia’s intifada is one such conflict. The students are obviously in the wrong, promoting antisemitism, destroying property and using violent methods to achieve dubious political aims. 

The faculty are a disaster: Their ideologies are anathema to scholarly detachment and their re-enactments of 1968 are childish and nihilistic. And the administration is complicit in the entire drama.

 Bollinger established the conditions for this disaster, and Shafik did nothing to change them — she saw the light only after it was blinding her.

We don’t have to choose a side, but this does not mean that those of us on the outside have no influence. In recent years, Columbia has received approximately $1 billion in annual federal funding — meaning the American taxpayer is funding the Ivy League intifada.

Congress could change this dynamic tomorrow. Rather than subsidize left-wing activism and pseudo-scholarship, congressional representatives could strip funding from Columbia and other Ivy League universities, impose severe restrictions on discriminatory DEI departments and restrict all future support for left-wing ideological programs such as “decolonization” and “post-colonial theory.” 

The faster that Congress can change the structural conditions that underpin these institutions, the better. Rather than boycott, divest and sanction Israel, Congress should boycott, divest and sanction the Ivy League.

Now, there’s an activist campaign the American public could easily support.

Christopher F. Rufo is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a contributing editor of City Journal, from which this essay is adapted

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