Columbia suspends 3 administrators who belittled campus Jews’ antisemitism worries

Jewish alum photographed group chat of university officials apparently ridiculing participants of ‘Jewish life on campus’ panel; pro-Palestinian activists vow to escalate tactics

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators square off outside Columbia University, February 2, 2024. (Luke Tress)
Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators square off outside Columbia University, February 2, 2024. (Luke Tress)

New York Jewish Week via JTA — Columbia University has suspended three administrators for sending disparaging text messages during a panel about Jewish campus life last month.

During the May 31 panel discussion, the administrators sent texts to each other mocking the panelists’ remarks and, in one instance, calling them “difficult to listen to.” One of the deans wrote that a panelist was leveraging the discussion of antisemitism for its “huge fundraising potential.”

An audience member sitting behind one of the deans took photos of the administrators’ texts and first shared them with the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet that has reported aggressively about the incident and its fallout. One of the photos was also shared independently with the New York Jewish Week.

Now, three of the administrators have been suspended pending an investigation of the incident. They are Susan Chang-Kim, the university’s vice dean and chief administrative officer; Matthew Patashnick, an associate vice dean for student and family support; and Cristen Kromm, a dean of undergraduate student life. Josef Sorett, the university’s dean, also participated in the exchange but has not been suspended.

“We are committed to combating antisemitism and taking sustained, concrete action to ensure Columbia is a campus where Jewish students and everyone in our community feels safe, valued, and able to thrive,” a university official told the New York Jewish Week on Friday.

“The Dean of Columbia College informed his team yesterday that three administrators have been placed on leave pending a university investigation of the incident that occurred at the College alumni reunion several weeks ago. The Dean reiterated his commitment to learning from this situation and other incidents over the last year to build a community of respect and healthy dialogue,” the official said by email.

The suspensions come as the Ivy League university in New York’s Morningside Heights continues to grapple with months of antisemitism allegations on campus amid the war in Gaza sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, which killed nearly 1,200 people and saw over 250 taken hostage amid rampant atrocities.

Columbia gained global attention in April when pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel students set up a protest encampment there that sparked a nationwide movement and, critics said, created a hostile and threatening environment for Jews on campus. More than 100 students were arrested at the encampment and during activists’ takeover of a campus building. Soon afterward, the school canceled its main commencement ceremony in May.

The campus is quieter now that classes have ended, but the school’s antisemitism task force, set up in the weeks after October 7, is due to release a report about incidents in which Jewish students were targeted.

A sign sits erected at the ‘Gaza Solidarity Encampment’ at Columbia University in New York, April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah, File)

The incidents include a professor singling out a student with a Jewish surname and asking them about the war in Gaza, according to a report in Haaretz, as well as another professor telling a class that mainstream media was “owned by Jews.” Other instructors urged students to join the protest encampment or held classes at the protest, the report said.

During the May 31 panel, titled “Jewish Life on Campus: Past, Present, and Future,” the four administrators texted each other while the panelists discussed campus antisemitism, according to the photos first reported in the Free Beacon.

Some of the text messages could be construed in a variety of ways. “This is difficult to listen to but I’m trying to keep an open mind,” Chang-Kim texted Sorett in one exchange. “Yup,” Sorett replied.

But others were more clearly disparaging. One image showed Patashnick, in reference to an unidentified panelist, saying, “He knows exactly what he’s doing and has to take full advantage of this moment. Huge fundraising potential.”

“Urgh,” Chang-Kim responded.

In another exchange, Kromm texted vomit emojis while referring to an op-ed by the Hillel rabbi, Yonah Hain, about antisemitism on campus, titled “Sounding the alarm.”

“And we thought Yonah sounded the alarm,” Kromm texted two others, followed by two vomit emojis.

In another text shared with the New York Jewish Week on Friday, Chang-Kim texted Sorett during a talk by Brian Cohen, the executive director of Columbia’s Hillel. “He is our hero,” Chang-Kim said, in an apparently sarcastic message. “Lmao,” Sorett responded, an acronym for “laughing my ass off.” Sorett did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The alum who took the photos, and who asked to remain anonymous to avoid personal blowback, told the New York Jewish Week that she had been “shocked” to see the exchange and that she had snapped the photos because she feels “Jews for some reason are not believed and so documenting it is essential.”

She added, “My image of who a college dean is and the dignity that that position should embody was completely antithetical to what I was experiencing.”

A Columbia alumni leader with detailed knowledge of the case said Sorett had discussed the affair with trustees on Monday. The trustees were upset about how Sorett handled the case, believing he had minimized a serious issue at the university.

Before the “Lmao” text came to light, the alumni leader said trustees had believed Sorett should not be disciplined because he had not sent any disparaging texts during the exchange. Now, discussions about a replacement dean were already taking place among trustees, the alum said.

In addition to Cohen, the panelists were former law school Dean David Schizer, who co-chairs the antisemitism task force; Rebecca Massel, a student journalist for the Columbia Spectator, the campus newspaper; and Ian Rottenberg, the director of the school’s Center for Religious Life.

The Congressional Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is investigating antisemitism at Columbia and other universities and has held a series of explosive hearings on campus antisemitism, demanded the university provide the text messages to the committee by June 26.

Student protesters, meanwhile, have vowed to keep demonstrating even as classes have let out. Student groups around New York City this week, including at Columbia, declared a “Summer of Resistance,” urging followers to take “non-stop action” in the coming months. The events will start with a protest on Friday at Hunter College. Student groups at Columbia and other New York Universities have increasingly leaned into open support for Palestinian terror groups in recent weeks.

On Thursday, the student group that has led the Columbia protests, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, posted photos on Instagram of vandalism at the subway station at the university’s entrance, calling the defacement an “anonymous submission.”

The graffiti said “Intifada,” referring to two Palestinian uprisings against Israel, including one in the early 2000s that saw an onslaught of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Other graffiti said “FU Columbia” and included inverted red triangles, a symbol that originated with Hamas.

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