On Sunday, April 21, Bwog interviewed Columbia Professor Michael Thaddeus regarding his thoughts on the recent student protests and arrests.  

Bwog had the opportunity to interview Columbia Mathematics Professor Michael Thaddeus, widely known as the whistleblower for the Columbia US News Scandal and as a stalwart supporter of academic freedom and transparency. Professor Thaddeus, who is currently on a sabbatical at the University of Cambridge, spoke with Bwog over phone on Sunday afternoon regarding his opinions on the recent student protests and the University’s response. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Emma Burris: You’ve been very vocal about academic freedom and what you perceive to be various problems at the University. Did you ever expect that the University would authorize the NYPD to arrest its own students?

Michael Thaddeus: No, I’m shocked and horrified by this. One thing I should say, first of all, on an amusing personal note—I missed these events because I’m on sabbatical, overseas in Cambridge, and I’ve been watching from a distance, just kind of transfixed with horror. I actually missed this once before, because in 1968, I was one year old. My dad was on sabbatical leave [from Columbia] and took the whole family to Berkeley, so we missed all of the events of ‘68 as well. 

But no, I never thought this would happen. And I’m still kind of in disbelief that the reaction just seems so disproportionate to whatever the alleged offenses of the student protesters actually were. And it seems just monumentally incompetent on the part of the administration, frankly, to have overreacted in the way that they did. 

EB: How do the events of the past several days impact your perception of Columbia?

MT: I’ve been at Columbia for 25 years, and I grew up in the neighborhood. So my perception of the institution, as a whole, hasn’t changed. But, in a way, it just sort of confirms or represents the next stage in a trend that we’ve seen developing ever since President Bollinger took office, actually, which is just the assertion of greater and greater authority by the central administration. 

One thing that shocked me about President Shafik’s testimony in the hearings, was that she and the House Republicans just seemed to be in complete agreement that the University could be run in a top-down fashion by the President. They said to her, Well, why don’t you just fire this professor, that professor? And she never said, Well, appointments of hiring and firing is not something I have the sole power to do. That requires the concurrence of the faculty

So you know, if you see the University as an institution where the central leadership can just run autocratically in any way they like, then sure, it makes perfect sense that if students are doing something that irritates you, you could call the police on them. That being said, in my mind it is completely contrary to the spirit of the University. 

You know, a warning signal that we should have seen is that President Shafik herself has never held a tenured faculty position anywhere. Her background was not primarily in the academic world—she worked at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Also, her Chief Operating Officer Cas Holloway worked for Bloomberg and for some start-up companies, and the Department of Sanitation. These are top-down institutions and the University just can’t be run that way. 

The people who run the University have to pay some decent respect to the opinion of students. And they just didn’t do that. And I think they’re kind of shocked now, I think, by what they’ve unleashed. But you know it just seems like the administration and trustees are in this bubble. They never talk to faculty or students, they never consult with them. They didn’t know what the opinions or wishes of students would be about something like this. And so that they could think this was a sane or sensible course of action.

EB: So speaking a little bit more on like the hearing. How do you think that President Shafik, Claire Shipman, David Greenwald, and David Schizer’s responses, their testimony, in the hearing relates to the stance that the University took on Thursday against the student protesters?

MT: With President Shafik, after what happened to President Gay at Harvard, President Magill at Penn, I’m sure her primary objective was to save her skin. She was afraid that the same thing that happened to them would happen to her. That basically right-wing people would be trying their best to destroy her. She went out of her way to placate them and she never really pushed back against the House Republicans at all. 

The coverage in The New York Times said that she genuflected before the congressmen and congresswomen. I think that pretty much gets it right. So when she came back, she also had this attitude, I need to shore up my position against criticism from the right. Very one-sided. It reminds me a little bit of Liz Truss, the British Prime Minister who held office for only a few weeks. Her whole attitude seemed to be, well, there’s no such thing as being too right-wing…

And in the case of President Shafik, the reality that she just seems unaware of is the mood amongst students. I mean, she needs, as I say, to have a decent respect for the opinion of students. And it didn’t seem like anybody at the administration made any effort to consult with students or faculty at all. And another thing that’s shocking to me is that even now, there’s been zero communication with faculty about what’s going on. I mean, we all got that email from President Shafik on the day that the police were called. But since then, you know, there’s just been nothing and no one has written to us and said, Well, you know, these are the reasons we had to do what we did, or this is justification. And to be honest with you right now, it seems like the leadership is in a defensive crouch.

EB: So to confirm, has any faculty member to your knowledge received any communication from the administration that students have not received? Or has it all been the same emails, the same announcements, et cetera? 

MT: Well, I don’t know what every single faculty member has received and not received, but Arts and Sciences faculty, you know, often we hear from our leadership about one thing or another, we get a mass mailing. There hasn’t been any mass mailings like that. No, there’s actually been silence from the Arts and Sciences leadership. And the faculty, the University as a whole, haven’t received any communications from the central administration that students haven’t received. So we don’t know anything more than you do. And a lot of faculty were very upset that today for some reason they didn’t have swipe access to the buildings on Morningside. So there is some consternation about that as well. 

The whole thing is upsetting for me because I’m watching from three thousand miles away across the ocean, and all I can find out is what I see on the internet in news reports like yours and in emails from colleagues. In particular, it’s very hard for me to get a sense of what the tone of the protest is like overall. I’ve seen a lot of it on Twitter and so on, but it’s very hard for me to tell if what I’m seeing is representative or if people are cherry picking the most extreme conduct that has been exhibited.

EB: There are a lot of faculty members who have vocally condemned the University’s response. There have been faculty forums, there have been statements condemning the University’s actions from both Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine and also the American Association of University Professors of Barnard and Columbia. And then various professors have also given speeches at the Encampment or participated in protests. So if you were here on campus this past week, how do you think you would respond?

MT: I’m glad that the AAUP put out that statement, because they did it really fast and it’s been very public… I think it’s a little unfortunate that apart from that, maybe you students haven’t heard from faculty as much as we would like… 

And I think you’ll find that the opinion among faculty is also overwhelmingly in support of the rights to free expression that the protesters were trying to assert. I think everybody thinks that what the administration did was both unprecedented and unjustified. So I think over the next few weeks, the position of the faculty is going to become more and more clear, but a lot of us on the faculty are upset and horrified about what’s going on. 

And as students, you should certainly understand this is not normal. This is a departure from standard practice and a dereliction of duty, frankly, by our leadership. We on the faculty want to make sure that they’re answerable for that.

EB: Going off of that, how would you recommend the faculty respond to the current atmosphere on campus? Would you recommend canceling classes, offering extensions, anything of the like?

MT: Because I’m not teaching this semester, I don’t know. I wouldn’t presume to make recommendations like that. There is going to be a faculty demonstration or protest, or at least an appearance, by the faculty on Low Steps or Beach by some faculty members, including David Lurie, the president of the AAUP chapter. So that’s something tangible that we can do to show our support. 

But mostly, we’re just going to be asking tough questions at faculty meetings in the next couple of weeks. Those of us who are University Senators are going to introduce resolutions and take actions in the Senate. You might see some resolutions, motions of censure or motions of no confidence in the faculty of Arts and Sciences meetings coming up. But those organizational responses, those governance responses take more time. You have to wait for meetings. It’s not going to happen with… remarkable speed. 

But as I say, the faculty holds a lot of different opinions about the events in the Middle East, but the rights of free expression by our students—that’s a separate question. I think almost everyone agrees that because universities are about free expression, there has to be a lot of latitude given to students to protest and to demonstrate, to make their feelings and opinions known. And that calling in the New York City Police Department to arrest students involved in a peaceful protest on a campus lawn where they’re expressing their opinions. That’s just unprecedented in our history. That’s totally contrary to the spirit of the University.

EB: So returning to what you said about the University Senate—I know there have been various calls for a vote of no confidence against Shafik and other senior administrators. Could you anticipate Shafik potentially resigning after all of this? And if so, do you think there’s anybody who could appease both sides? Or do you think this is a scenario where both people who are pro-Israel and pro-Palestine are just going to always be contesting each other?

MT: That’s a really hard question. I mean, 1968 was a much bigger conversation. If you think that the recent events have been disruptive to life at the University, they have nothing on 1968, where students occupied… campus buildings, including, you know, the President’s Office in Low Library and remained in those buildings… So, after the 1968 disturbances, all of the leadership had to resign. There were some people who, like David Truman, who was the Provost at the time, who tried to be a conciliator, and tried to offer something to both sides. And it just didn’t work. Both sides were so far apart that neither side ended up supporting him. And I think there’s some risk of that happening with President Shafik, yes. 

If you saw the… truck driving around outside campus calling for her to resign, and that was from the pro-Zionist perspective. But then, of course, there are people calling from the opposite perspective. So, she’s in a very difficult position. And as I said, I feel that this whole episode has been handled in a way that was monumentally incompetent. And it’s possible that the trustees will feel the same way. As I said, they’re in a bubble. And they never talk to students, they never talk to faculty. They’re just unaware of the opinions and attitudes among students. But this has clearly gotten their attention, and maybe [they’ll] wake up to the fact that things went very, very poorly.

EB: So regarding the administration talking to students, talking to faculty—how do you think that Shafik’s listening sessions and the Task Force on Antisemitism listening sessions, how do you think all of that factors into everything? Do you think that the administration has some sort of grasp on student sentiment? Or do you feel like these listening sessions aren’t very useful for them?

MT: Well, the thing about the Task Force on Antisemitism is that that was set up with a fairly obvious agenda right from the get-go. So the main purpose of the Task Force wasn’t listening. And then as you maybe read in the in the press coverage, they made matters worse by sort of refusing to specify or define what antisemitism was. David Schizer, one of the leaders of the Task Force, tried to try to make amends for that in his congressional testimony, but the Task Force on Antisemitism was just set up with this, as I say, with a fairly obvious agenda in mind and with an overly narrow purview. 

I personally would have been much happier if there had been a task force devoted to addressing prejudice of all kinds. But when you talk about listening sessions, you can’t really go into a listening session and ask students or faculty, Well, tell us what we think, what do you think we should do about antisemitism? You know, it should be more broad-based. The administration and trustees should be just coming to the University stakeholders asking us, What’s on your mind? What’s good about the institution, but what’s bad about the institution that we should be working to make better?

There should be [a] much more open-minded mode of listening going on where people are being listened to in a broad and open-minded way… [The Task Force] was just a limited narrow initiative and it didn’t address a lot of the problems that a lot of people were unhappy about.

EB: So, moving a bit towards Commencement, since these protests are right now taking place in West Butler Lawn, which is where a lot of the bleachers are going to be set up. How do you think these protests will affect Commencement, as the University is getting to the point where they can’t really start setting up? 

MT: That’s something I hadn’t thought about that much. A lot of people were sort of perplexed that Columbia treated students pitching tents on a lawn as interference with the core functions of the University. I mean, you’re almost tempted to laugh out loud at the core functions of the University. What core functions of the University are they interfering with by pitching tents on a lawn? They weren’t occupying classrooms or laboratories or libraries, or even offices, right. They’re just a lawn. 

But that lawn is where the chairs are going to be set up for [Commencement.] Really, given the amount of pomp and circumstance and money and expense and effort that is lavished on Commencement every year, it’s clear that the University does see having Commencement and holding a kind of a smooth, spiffy Commencement as one of its core functions. And you’re right, that these disturbances interfere with the preparations for Commencement. I’ve seen in the photographs those bleachers going up on either side of upper Low Plaza. So I know that that part of the Commencement preparations was already underway as it normally is. 

But that’s going to be a problem, isn’t it? And think about Commencement itself. A lot of the students graduating at Commencement are going to be students who are seriously pissed off about what has been going on, and they’re going to find some way to protest, you know… There’s so many different ways that thousands of students in academic dress could stage a protest of some kind, and you could bet that something like that is likely to happen. And also, I’m sure President Shafik will be roundly booed by a lot of people. 

Did you? Did you attend her Inauguration by any chance? 

EB: No, but we did report on it for Bwog. And we did see the videos of President Shafik and [Barnard] President Rosenbury. They had a lot of backlash at both their Inaugurations.

MT: I remember President Rosenbury. You know, her Inauguration was quite a while after she took office and it was after October 7 itself. Heavy-handed moves on her part. With her I sort of understand why that was so contentious. 

With President Shafik, the Inauguration was in September. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen. It was a grand ceremonial gathering, but it was like a carnival experience where there were three different groups staging loud, raucous demonstrations right there on College Walk. There was a graduate student labor union, there were students protesting the gynecologist, climate protesters. The climate protesters were silent, but the other two were making lots of noise the entire time. 

And I had mixed feelings about it. I thought Minouche, she’s not personally responsible for any of these things, why rain on her parade? But I also felt that [the causes] those protesters were raising were very serious. And I admire them for staging those protests so very effectively. So, if that was a preview of what’s going to happen at Commencement, Commencement is going to be really crazy.

EB: We’re on the fifth day of the Encampment on the lawns. How do you anticipate the University will respond moving forward? Because there are a lot of demands, of course, that Columbia University Apartheid Divest is calling for, one being divestment. Do you think that the University would ever give in to some of their demands, all of their demands? Do you think they’re just going to wait it out? How do you anticipate things going forward from here?

MT: No, they’re not going to give in to their demands, if their demands have to do with divestment. They’re not going to give in. On the other hand, calling in the cops the first time was such a disaster. It just inflamed student opinion and turned them against the administration so decisively, that I doubt they’re going to try that again. So as I said, right now, they’re really in a bind, and that’s why I see the administration being in a defensive crouch. 

Now, I’m not on the scene, I’d be curious to know actually, what’s your impression? You say the Encampment is in its fifth day? Does that mean that the Encampment came back? 

EB: The Wednesday was when they set up the tents and everything on East Butler Lawn. Thursday at around 1:30 pm was when the arrests happened. Shortly after, the NYPD took down all the tents, since they said having the tents up was against University policy. After the arrests were made, students started jumping onto West Butler Lawn and occupying that. 

Over the past few days, they’ve been bringing tarps and a lot of food, medical supplies, different materials to West Butler Lawn. And actually, as of an hour or two ago, the University said that students on West Butler Lawn are allowed to have tents now. Since previously, students on West Butler Lawn were told they couldn’t have tents, but now they’ve been told that they can. 

MT: I mean, on the one hand, it kind of makes a mockery of the previous charges. The previous charges were just so flimsy and trumped up. It’s really weird, because what the administration and the mayor and so on say that they’re concerned about is harassment and threats against Jewish students. And there’s some legitimate grounds to be concerned about that. If the accounts that I’ve heard and read about are true, there have been some episodes and incidents that are very troubling, although typically not on campus, but on the sidewalks surrounding the campus. 

But harassment and threats like that is not what the encampment protesters were charged with. If at least the charges I’ve seen are accurate, they were charged with narrow, trivial, flimsy things like pitching tents on the lawn that were not provided by Facilities. Does a sense like that really warrant calling in dozens of police officers and arresting students and having the mayor hold a press conference about it now? No. 

So it just became so obvious that what the protesters did that the University was really objecting to was just expressing their opinion. And when you start arresting people solely for expressing their opinion, that’s a dark and dangerous direction. So if they’ve done a U-turn, in a way, that’s really good news, but it just makes a mockery of their previous strategy. 

I really don’t know what they’re gonna do about divestment. I mean, that’s just not going to happen. For one thing, the University has procedures for deciding about divestment questions and those procedures are extremely slow, extremely bureaucratic. But also, and people should know this, all the divestment commitments that the University has made so far apply only to direct investments. And most of the investments by the University are not—half of the University’s endowment appears to be held offshore, in offshore investment vehicles like blocker corporations in the Cayman Islands and offshore jurisdictions like that. So it’s very hard to tell where the University’s indirect investments are being held. 

And also, the University has a lot of investments in private equity. You can easily track their investments in publicly traded companies—the sectors that those companies are in and if you wanted to divest from publicly traded companies doing business with the Israeli military, you could easily do that. But all these investments in private equity are very opaque, so it would be very hard for any outside observer, even to be able to tell whether the University was invested in these… So for these reasons, I just see divestment from companies doing business in Israel, or companies doing business with the Israeli military, or something that’s just not going to happen. 

The other thing is that that would be bitterly opposed by a lot of people among our donors and trustees, both as a symbolic matter and because it would set a precedent for other organizations.

EB: How do you believe the University can reinstate trust in its students after this?

MT: I don’t know. That’s gonna be very, very difficult to do. But, President Shafik identified mistrust as a problem that we have at Columbia, if you look at her remarks to the University Senate that were reported by the Spectator a month or two ago. 

Now there’s so much mistrust here and she seemed to have the impression that it was just a kind of a cultural peculiarity of ours. The reason we have mistrust is because our administration has not been level with us, has not been honest with us. We saw that in the US News Scandal, we saw that in the gynecologist scandal. You know, we’ve seen that in a number of other scandals. The Spectator reported on a scandal with the Director of Public Safety. 

Trust can be rebuilt, but it’s gonna be a slow process and it’s gonna require a real sea change in the administration. There has to be a total reversal of their attitude towards students and faculty. There needs to be much, much greater openness about facts and figures, but also about policy. There needs to be more listening to us. We need to have more actual input. Listening to us is great. That’s welcome. But that’s not enough. 

They also need to act on some of the things that we’re unhappy about and some of those are things that benefit the wider community in the world. And these divestment issues are a good example of them. But the real answer, as I said, is I don’t know. Rebuilding trust is slow.

Gaza Solidarity Encampment via Emma Burris