Several controversial events occurring during Columbia President Minouche Shafik’s tenure as Director at the London School of Economics and Political Science have resurfaced amidst the student demonstrations taking place at Columbia.

Editor’s warning: Descriptions of sexual misconduct and white supremacy

Over the past several weeks, Columbia President Minouche Shafik has received criticism across the board. Many were dissatisfied with her responses during the April 17 congressional hearing on antisemitism, while congressmembers have called for her resignation due to claims of her inability to ensure the safety of Jewish and Israeli students. Meanwhile, President Shafik has also received significant criticism from students, faculty, and staff regarding her decision to authorize the NYPD on campus to arrest students on April 18 and April 30

President Shafik assumed office on July 1, 2023, succeeding President Lee Bollinger as the 20th President of Columbia University. Before joining Columbia, President Shafik served as the President and Vice Chancellor of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) from September 1, 2017 until July 1, 2023. 

As Director of LSE, Shafik oversaw LSE 2030, a strategy aimed at instilling innovative educational practices, investing in social science research, and leading community initiatives. According to LSE student newspaper The Beaver, she was a proponent of “lifetime education” and “sustained, ongoing learning,” making it easier for alumni to return for further education. 

Shafik’s directorate also attempted to promote diversity and inclusion, providing scholarships to recruit candidates from diverse backgrounds, initiatives that still felt inadequate to some students. Under Shafik, QS World University ranked LSE first in the United Kingdom and second in the world in the “Sustainable Institutions” category. In 2021, LSE became the first carbon neutral university in the UK.

However, President Shafik’s directorate underwent many controversies, including criticism over the admission of Unite the Right extremist Peter Cvjetanovic, allegations of discrimination against professors, and claims of mishandling of sexual misconduct cases, among others. Over the past month, Bwog investigated these claims.

Admission of Peter Cvjetanovic

In 2018, LSE admitted American student Peter Cvjetanovic for a Masters of Science in Political Theory. In 2017, Cvjetanovic was photographed participating in the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, which had resulted in the death of one counter-protester. At the time, Cvjetanovic described himself as a “white nationalist” but backtracked on his statement in a 2019 interview with the Beaver. As of 2017, Cvjetanovic was also a member of Identity Evropa, a neo-Nazi and white supremacist organization. 

In October 2018, the LSE student body circulated an open letter against Cvjetanovic condemning his admission. The letter claims Cvjetanovic “undermine[d] the safety and security of students and staff,” stating, “White nationalism, white supremacism, and Nazism directly contradict LSE’s values of equity, diversity and inclusion and cannot be squared with its endeavour to provide an open and safe environment.” The letter also encouraged Cvjetanovic to publish a public apology. 

Overall, the letter presented six demands from LSE—to denounce Cvjetanovic’s actions, to review whether his beliefs complied with the code of conduct, to allow students currently enrolled in a course with Cvjetanovic to switch classes without penalty, to evaluate Cvjetanovic’s status to live in LSE accommodation, to appoint a head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and to create a “rigorous selection process for applicants and not admit publicly self-identified white nationalists, white supremacists, or Nazis.”

Around that same time, LSE issued a statement to the London Tab regarding the Cvjetanovic controversy. LSE stated that while they don’t provide details on individual students, they “take any complaints received very seriously” and are “committed to equity, diversity and inclusion for all members of the School community.” LSE stated, “Students and staff are free to hold and express their own views, however, we expect everyone within the LSE community to treat each other with respect at all times.” They concluded that graduate admissions are decided based on the strength of individual applications. 

According to the Decolonising LSE Collective, an activist collective of LSE students and faculty, students held a rally two days after the School’s statement was published, which culminated outside the Directorate office. A few days later, Minouche Shafik held a school forum where students asked about Cvjetanovic’s admission to LSE; in response, she told students that political screenings of applicants are “impossible and illegal” as part of student admissions. According to The Beaver, she told students that since Cvjetanovic had released a statement renouncing his extremist views, he should be given an opportunity to learn, affirming LSE as a “place of learning.” In December 2019, Cvjetanovic graduated from LSE. 

Former LSE student Francesca Humi claimed on X that during this time, LSE students “wrote a petition to have [Cvjetanovic] expelled.” According to Humi, LSE leadership told students they were unable to expel Cvjetanovic due to free speech principles and an inability to do a political background check. Bwog attempted to reach out to Humi for comment but was unable to reach her. 

Allegations of mishandling of sexual misconduct reports

LSE Professor Taylor Sherman resigned from her position in September of 2023 after more than ten years at the School, citing the administration’s “systemic mishandling of a sexual misconduct case” as her primary reasoning, according to The Beaver. The following complaints have been made against the accused professor. 

In July 2022, an investigation was underway against an LSE faculty member, who had five formal complaints and nine informal complaints. The Beaver reported that after the investigation, “an LSE disciplinary panel did not uphold the allegations,” allowing the faculty member to continue teaching. 

Sherman told The Beaver, “The complaint system [at LSE] seems to be set up to protect the faculty, and does not just let these abuses happen, but discriminates against the people who complain. The very top levels of the school were completely unwilling to address discrimination, victimisation and abuses of power.” 

The Beaver spoke to eight women regarding the allegations surrounding this professor. Two postgraduate fellows left the School due to this professor’s behavior. One fellow wrote that the department’s atmosphere was “extremely toxic” and not “conducive to [her] research and well-being.” According to one of the fellows, colleagues did not support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives. As reported in The Beaver, one fellow stated, “I can’t survive in this department… I felt incredibly unsafe as a young woman of colour… nobody was there to protect me.”

One LSE PhD student submitted a complaint against the professor when he made an advance during a department trip, trying to kiss her. This student and four other women submitted formal complaints between March and May 2021, initiating a disciplinary process that lasted around a year before it ended. None of the women who submitted a complaint were notified of the process’s conclusion. During the disciplinary process, LSE reportedly told the women that the accused professor was suspended with pay and that the investigation was allegedly led by a professor with sexual misconduct handling expertise. However, many other students, all of whom also filed complaints, stated that the lead investigator did not have “appropriate training” and “didn’t know how to deal with the matter in line with best practices.”

According to the fellows, LSE retracted their statement that the professor was currently suspended months later, notifying students that he had a “partial suspension” after he was seen at a public event. The professor officially returned to his position in October 2022. “LSE is actively protecting him,” one postdoctoral fellow told the Beaver

In October 2022, the accused professor returned to his position. According to Sherman, this professor “started victimising the women involved” and began recruiting allies to target junior colleagues of color who supported DEI initiatives. 

During this time, Sherman filed two formal complaints to Minouche Shafik regarding the accused professor’s “victimisation and discrimination.” After seven months, Shafik responded. She reportedly offered “informal conciliatory measures” and mediation. 

Sherman later described mediation led by two LSE senior staff members as “utterly disastrous,” claiming they “didn’t do anything to stop the abusive behavior.” According to her, the two senior staff members reportedly asked staff not to engage “if somebody makes an offensive… or discriminatory statement.” Sherman told The Beaver, “The informal mediation silenced those who were working for a more inclusive culture.” After months of discussion, Sherman resigned. 

An LSE spokesperson told The Beaver, “LSE is committed to a working and learning environment where people can achieve their full potential free of all types of harassment.  We take any reports of harassment extremely seriously.” They stated that the School had established a sexual harassment review group with “specific training for a diverse group of staff.” 

As of March 2024, the accused professor still teaches at LSE. 

In March of 2024, anti-sexual misconduct student group HandsOff LSE published a petition in response to the article by the Beaver, calling for “an independent review of LSE’s support for survivors of gender-based violence as well as its reporting and investigation processes.” The petition also demanded the resignation of the accused professor. 

Regarding this petition, HandsOff member Zarina Huq told The London Tab that they feel “there is a complete lack of transparency between the institution and students.” An LSE spokesperson told the Tab that they have recently reviewed their sexual misconduct reporting process and have instituted reforms. 

University and College Union strikes

The LSE branch of the University and College Union (UCU), which represents over 120,000 academics and university staff members across the United Kingdom, has also experienced changes under Shafik’s directorate. According to a May 2023 document, the LSE UCU branch members who participated in a spring 2023 marking and assessment boycott had their pay reduced by 50%. The national UCU organization stated that it was likely for employers to reduce pay due to industrial action across the country. 

The document cited LSE’s reason for pay deduction being that they do “not accept partial performance of duties,” which they see as a breach of contract. It attested that “LSE will continue to monitor the ongoing impact of the boycott and reserves the right to deduct more than 50%, up to a maximum of 100%.” The document stated that this pay deduction would occur for individuals who completed a pro-forma document stating their participation or those “who [were] reasonably believed to have taken part.” This includes professors who failed to submit assessments by the deadline. 

The national UCU organization has created processes for filing claims to assist Union members who have had their pay reduced. The marketing and assessment boycott ended in September 2023. 

LSE student stages hunger strike due to graduate exam deferral policies

In January 2022, LSE MSc Economics student David Svanidze began a hunger strike in opposition to LSE’s graduate exam deferral policy. According to this policy, graduate students who chose to defer exams would have to take exams in January 2023, a year after the Autumn Term January exam period. Deferred undergraduate exams, however, were to take place during the summer of 2022. 

In a letter written by Svanidze regarding his hunger strike, he explained that current deferred graduate exams would cause various issues for students, especially since students taking deferred exams would not be able to graduate on time. Svanidze attested that this delayed graduation would render international students ineligible for a graduate route visa allowing them to stay in the UK after graduation, require students to pay back scholarships, and delay the financial benefits coming from having a master’s degree. 

Svanidze also conducted a survey with 79 MSc Economics students regarding their thoughts on this policy. Overall, 97% of respondents stated that this policy was “very unfair” or “somewhat unfair.” Svanidze claimed that “LSE does not seem to care,” which “deteriorates [students’] mental and physical health.” He also attested that some students considered dropping out of LSE due to the deferral policy. 

Svanidze’s hunger strike ultimately lasted seven days. He told The Beaver, “We were lobbying and writing emails to the LSE administration but it didn’t change much.” According to Svanidze, Pro-Director for Education Dilly Fung stated it was not possible to change the policy, one reason being how much staffing was necessary to hold exams. “There was never a point [where they said] ‘we know it’s difficult to change but we will definitely find a quick solution’. It was always ‘let’s wait until next year,’” Svanidze told The Beaver

After Svanidze ended his hunger strike, Pro-Director Fung issued a statement, writing, “We are extremely pleased and relieved that Davit has ended his hunger strike. We encourage him to pursue his protest by working with the Students’ Union to put forward his concerns through established channels.”

General Opinion 

While the above cases are individual events in LSE’s history, Bwog also investigated the general student opinion about Shafik’s directorate.

Bwog reached out to LSE newspaper The Beaver for comment on the public opinion of LSE students with regards to President Shafik. One student journalist from The Beaver stated, “She did much to advance LSE’s brand name, but seemed indifferent to real issues faced by students.” They told Bwog, “As a student, I wouldn’t say Minouche particularly cared for us: she cared about the LSE as an institution and curating its façade, she seemed to care less about the people within it and their lived experiences.” 

In a March 2022 article on LSE’s website, MSc students describe the LSE administration as one “unwilling to do anything to deviate from its descent into a marketised, corporatised university in which students are treated as consumers and staff are casualised, all in the interest of the bottom line.” In addition to being a public higher education institution and recognized charity, LSE is also filed as a company. Another journalist from The Beaver backed this claim, writing that LSE was undergoing “marketisation.”

In another March 2022 piece published by The Beaver, current Executive Editor Alan Nemirovski stated, “My only interactions with Shafik have been one-sided; they have mainly been through the one or two emails she sends to the entire university at the start of each term.” He wrote, “I never see her on campus or closely engaged with the LSE community… I also wonder to what extent… she might be disconnected from the actual events, perspectives, and issues on campus.” 

Nonetheless, the Beaver Managing Editor Eugenia Brotons seemed to have a different opinion. While initially describing Shafik as “the perfect scapegoat” and “synonymous with all that is reprehensible, gone wrong, and decaying at the LSE,” Brotons overall thought Shafik “was a good director and one we could be proud of.” 

Brotons wrote, “Deep down, we know she was worthy of some appreciation, and the valiant beavers [the LSE mascot] will admit that, in reality, we (sort of) liked Minouche.” She stated that Shafik “did relatively well in representing the institution, and for that, we respect and perhaps even admire you, Minouche.” 

Overall, LSE constituents had varying opinions on Minouche Shafik’s directorate. Many affiliates seemed to feel a disconnect between themselves and President Shafik. While Peter Cvjetanovic’s admission at LSE was largely contended, President Shafik told students he should be permitted to stay at LSE due to it being a “place of learning.” During the past few weeks, President Shafik’s administration has taken a stricter approach, leading to the suspensions of hundreds of students and expulsions of dozens. During Shafik’s tenure at LSE, students and professors felt the School failed to properly handle sexual misconduct reports, leading multiple individuals to leave the School. Under Shafik, LSE professors participating in a University and College Union strike received pay cuts of 50%, and an LSE student began a hunger strike due to an exam deferral policy he deemed “damaging.” By studying her LSE directorate, one can perhaps more appropriately understand and evaluate President Shafik’s administration at Columbia. 

Update made on Friday, May 10 at 10:01 pm:

On January 19, 2023, the LSE School Management Committee (SMC) announced their decision not to renew their membership in Stonewall, a UK LGBTQ+ rights organization. According to the LSE Rejoin Stonewall website, this decision was made “without formal consultation with the LGBTQ+ staff network, the LGBTQ+ Steering Group, the unions, or the academic board.”

In the statement, the SMC attested that the decision “does not detract from LSE’s clear and unwavering dedication to all LGBTQ+ staff and students.” In an email from December 8, 2022 that was copied to the statement, LSE said that they did not renew their membership due to a desire to “discuss, effect change and challenge through education practices, academic research and rigorous debate” and tolerate “different points of view.” The statement read, “Our focus must be how we sustain LSE as a place where all these endeavours are realised, rather than taking any stance or implied alignment with external bodies that reflect one position in a complex and sensitive area, which impacts our LSE community.”

In December, LSE stated goals for creating an inclusive environment where all students and staff are “valued and supported.” They attested that extra funding will be provided for Spectrum, LSE’s LGBTQ+ staff network.

On November 6, 2022, Sex Matters, a “human-rights charity” that denounces transgender identities, published an open letter addressed to President Shafik. In this letter, they called on Shafik “to end the hostile environment for students and staff espousing gender-critical views.” Rejoin Stonewall attests that this letter “openly pressur[ed] LSE president Minouche Shafik to leave Stonewall just before she made her decision.”

According to a January 19 Zoom meeting transcript, a member of the SMC stated, “Many people feel their freedom of speech is compromised by Stonewall.” The December statement substantiated this sentiment, stating, “SMC believe the best way to ensure ongoing advancement of equity, diversity and inclusion, which includes sustaining LSE as a place for the free exchange of ideas and academic discussion, is through not renewing our membership.

“LSE Philosophy professor Bryan W Roberts published a memo on LSE’s claims of free speech principles influencing their decision not to renew the Stonewall membership. He attested that while Stonewall provides LGBTQ+ feedback and training resources, they are “advisory and non-binding.” Roberts stated, “By withdrawing from Stonewall, the LSE is similarly giving up the only serious protection for its LGBTQ+ staff and students, through considerations of freedom that have no basis in fact.”

On March 7, 2023, Rejoin Stonewall held a protest on the same day as the 2023 Student Q&A, where students are typically welcomed to ask questions to the School Management Committee. Demonstrators gathered on campus and then attended the Q&A, sitting in a group and holding flags. During the Student Q&A, President Shafik discussed the decision to leave Stonewall. According to Rejoin Stonewall, she “talk[ed] about the ‘polarisation’ and ‘divisions’ in the community and the importance of LSE as an institution remaining ‘politically neutral.'” After a few questions about the Stonewall decision, the SMC reportedly attempted to move on by only calling on crowd members who were not visibly a part of the protest group. However, the conversation about Stonewall reportedly lasted another 45 minutes, including an interjection from “a student who expressed hateful and harmful views about transgender students.”

Deputy News Editor Khushi Chhaya and News Team Staff Writers Isabelle Oh and Helen Chen contributed to the research for this article.

LSE building via Wikimedia Commons