Reflecting on Our Mission

Monday, October 30, 2023

Dear Columbia College alumni,

I reach out to you amid challenging days for the Columbia University community, to provide some reflections on behalf of the College. And I want to begin by thanking those of you who have already taken the time to write to me directly, both with expressions of concern and words of encouragement.

The horrific acts of terrorism and violence perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 that took the lives of Israeli civilians, including children, shocked the conscience. This tragedy is now compounded by Israel’s war with Hamas, the profound humanitarian crisis in Gaza, with Israelis still being held hostage, and the volume of Palestinian lives lost rising each day. Words fall short of capturing what we have witnessed this past month, as all disregard for innocent human life is an affront to our deepest values as an institution — and as individuals. The toll of this deathly conflict has hit members of our community especially hard, and forging a shared language with which to move forward has proven a formidable task.

Many of you have shared distress at stories about Columbia in the press and across social media, which portray a very specific view of life on campus over these past weeks. As President Shafik stated in a note to the community on Friday evening, I want to make it absolutely clear that we do not tolerate anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, discriminatory harassment, hate speech or violence of any form in our community. I assure you that we are taking appropriate action when these issues arise. Individuals who violate University rules are being held accountable.

These voices do not speak on behalf of, or accurately represent, our broader community. While, to be sure, there have been incidents of disturbing and unacceptable behavior, the majority of our students are attempting to continue with the regular routines of the academic calendar. Last week, in the middle of midterms, I participated in several illuminating and informal conversations, including a casual meal in the dorms with a group of students, a dialogue with Arab and Muslim student leaders in Hamilton Hall, and a visit to the Kraft Center, where I joined a table of Jewish students for their weekly Shabbat dinner.

Each of these groups raised questions and offered pointed criticisms. They candidly relayed to me how the events of the past few weeks have disrupted their lives. They expressed their respective concerns about Columbia, as well as their hopes for a better future. Yet they also focused on the typical demands of coursework and co-curricular activities, and are going about their college lives, finding strength in community. Moreover, they are putting our values to practice by advocating for and supporting one another when instances of hate speech and doxxing — on campus and online — have occurred.

In times of crisis, it bears repeating that Columbia College stands resolutely as a community committed to open dialogue and intellectual freedom, respectfully affirming cultural, political and religious diversity. As I’ve said several times in recent days, at the heart of what we do is a simple — yet fundamentally radical — proposition. We invite students to our campus from all around the globe, representing every conceivable kind of difference, and require them to live and learn together.

Many in our community, students included, are seeking to better understand the larger history of this conflict, as well as to grasp its significance in relation to crises elsewhere around the globe. We cannot shield our students from the world, nor would it be to their benefit, and no analytical framework makes the loss of human life easy to comprehend. But we work tirelessly to safeguard their personal safety and emotional well-being. As stewards of their education, we must also continue to provide them with the spaces, tools and guidance to understand and interrogate the world as it is. As an academic community, we engage with difference through dialogue and debate.

I say to my students at the start of each new class: there really is no such thing as “safe space” when you think out loud with others. Expressing one’s viewpoint always entails risk, and often creates tension — but that is the point. Doing so within the bounds of a commitment to respect is how we grow, build empathy and find our voice. As many are finding it more difficult to share space with those who don’t share their experience or perspective, this kind of education has never been more important.

As we move forward in this moment, protecting the safety and well-being of our community will continue to guide our actions — especially for those students, faculty, families and staff who have, in varying ways, been directly impacted by the current conflict. With this in mind:

  • The College has established a Campus Climate Response Team that meets daily, responding to student concerns in real time.
  • Academic advisors are assisting students who are directly impacted and who require academic accommodations.
  • A holistic array of University resources are available to the community, including academic, administrative, mental health and spiritual support.
  • With regards to doxxing, College staff are providing one-on-one support for targeted students and families, while the university has provided a library of online resources.
  • I am organizing a series of dialogues on campus with students, faculty and staff, as well as engaging alumni leaders, who have an especially important role to play as we develop language and tools adequate for the work ahead.

These are just the first in a series of steps to address the near-term impact on our community. Others will follow as we continue to reflect on how best to integrate these efforts into the long-term work of Columbia College. My thanks, again, to those of you who have reached out to share your voice and offer support. Thank you for everything you do for our students and to sustain the mission of Columbia College as we look toward our shared future.

With respect,

Josef Sorett
Dean of Columbia College
Vice President for Undergraduate Education
Professor of Religion and African American & African Diaspora Studies

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