Where We Stand as a Community

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Columbia College Dean Josef Sorett shared the following message with students regarding the Columbia community's ongoing response to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and its impact on campus life.

Dear Columbia College students,

I am writing as we return from Fall break to share some thoughts on where we stand as a community in this moment, as well as to provide you with updates on our ongoing response to how the crisis in the Middle East has impacted our campus.

In my recent message to Columbia College alumni, I reminded them that at the heart of what we do is a simple — yet fundamentally radical — proposition. We invite you to our campus from all around the globe, representing every conceivable kind of difference, and require you to live and learn together. It is within this framework that our commitment to respectful discourse and intellectual freedom can achieve its greatest success, with the idea being that each of you learns as much from your peers as from your professors.

At the start of each class I teach, I remind students that there really is no such thing as “safe space” when you think out loud with others. I don’t make this statement glibly — especially in a moment where many feel physically unsafe. The truth is that 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.

For many of us the current conflict is deeply personal, particularly for those in our community who have family and close friends in Israel and Gaza. Here on campus, disturbing incidents of discrimination, and intimidation through doxxing, have brought fear and pain to students and their families. Many are also turning to scholarship and constructive dialogue to better understand the larger history of this conflict, as well as to grasp its significance in relation to crises elsewhere around the globe. Some see their own struggles reflected in the present moment, while others are finding ways to support their peers. All the while, many of you are finding strength in community even as you attempt to continue with the regular routines of the academic calendar.

Forging a shared language with which to move forward in addressing these challenging issues has proven a formidable task. To do so, we must grapple with the following questions:

  • What is considered civil debate and discourse?

  • What are the rules of engagement in discourse, and what are the consequences for those who violate those rules?

  • Where is the line between advocacy and provocation?

  • When does free speech become hate speech?

To ensure that we begin this work on a solid foundation, I want to make it absolutely clear that we do not tolerate Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, identity-based harassment, hate speech or violence of any form in our community. Individuals and groups who violate University rules are being held accountable.

None of these perennial questions lend themselves to easy answers; and all the more so in moments when emotions are raw. Even still, we must listen to one another, strive for empathy, and continually reflect on both the intent and consequences of our speech and actions. In the days and weeks ahead you will hear more about programs – both formal and informal – that the College is developing to support these efforts. But, it is important to note that your voices, respect, and engagement will be critical in these spaces.

I want to thank those of you who have already written to me with questions and recommendations. My commitment to you is that I will remain directly involved in this process. Whether convening student leaders, or catching up with you in the dining halls and around campus, you will be seeing more of me and I look forward to engaging in conversation.

As we move forward in this moment, protecting the safety and well-being of our community will continue to be our foremost priority — especially for those of you 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. If you are experiencing challenges because of the campus climate, please email cc-seas@columbia.edu and a staff member will respond within one business day.

  • Academic advisors are assisting students who are directly impacted and who require academic accommodations. I encourage you to reach out to your advisor if recent events have disrupted your academic pursuits.

  • I will be gathering a diverse group of student leaders who will partner with me in determining how best to move the community forward in this moment and beyond as we develop language and tools adequate for the work ahead.

  • 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. If you are a victim of doxxing, please reach out to the Campus Climate Response Team.

  • A holistic array of University resources are available to the community, including academic, administrative, mental health and spiritual support.

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 support you in the weeks ahead. I thank you for all that you continue to do to support one another and bring the College’s values and mission to life every day.

With respect,

Josef Sorett

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

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